Prescription Refills: How They Work and When to Get Them

A prescription refill is when a patient receives additional doses of a medication after the original prescription is completed. Refills allow patients to continue taking medications over an extended period of time without having to get a new prescription from their doctor for each refill.

Understanding when and how to refill a prescription is important for staying adherent to treatment plans.

Why are Prescription Refills Necessary?

Prescription refills are necessary for medications that are taken regularly over long periods of time. Many medications, especially those used to treat chronic conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes, are meant to be taken continuously. According to the CDC, the most commonly prescribed medications in the United States are for such chronic conditions. Rather than write new prescriptions each month, doctors authorize refills so patients can continue therapy uninterrupted. This avoids extra visits to the doctor’s office to renew the prescription.

Refills are also useful if a short-term medication must be continued longer than originally planned. For example, if a 10-day course of antibiotics needs to be extended to 14 days to fully treat an infection, a refill allows the patient to get additional doses.

Overall, refills promote adherence by making it easy for patients to stay on their treatment plans over months or years. This is important, as medication nonadherence costs the U.S. healthcare system an estimated $300 billion per year according to the Annals of Pharmacotherapy.

How do Prescription Refills Work?

1. Understanding the Refill Process

When a doctor prescribes a new medication, the prescription indicates the total number of refills allowed. This is typically communicated to the patient along with instructions for taking the medication. The number of refills ranges depending on the drug, duration of therapy, and insurance coverage. 

For ongoing medications, doctors often authorize a year’s worth of refills. However, prescriptions with no refills may be given for short-term or as-needed medications.

Refills do not renew automatically. The patient must actively request each refill once the current supply runs low. The pharmacy checks that refills remain on the prescription and that it is not expired before dispensing additional doses.

2. How to Request a Refill

Patients can request prescription refills by contacting their pharmacy. Most pharmacies allow refill requests by phone, through their website or mobile app, or automatically when the patient is due for a refill. Some doctors also have online patient portals where refills can be requested.

The pharmacy will verify available refills with the prescriber’s office and patient insurance before filling the request. The patient will be notified when the refill is ready for pickup.

3. Timing of Prescription Refills

Pharmacies urge patients to request refills 3-5 days before they will run out of medication. This provides time to process the request and avoid an interruption in therapy. It also ensures the patient doesn’t end up with an unnecessary extra supply if the dose changes. 

Insurance companies commonly allow refills once 75-85% of the previous fill has been used. Trying to refill too soon will result in rejection by the insurer. It’s important to follow the prescribed dosing instructions to ensure enough medication is on hand until the next refill is due.

4. Insurance Coverage for Prescription Refills

Prescription refills are typically covered the same as the original fill by the patient’s insurance plan. However, the number of refills covered varies. Many insurers limit prescriptions to a 30-day supply, so a 90-day prescription would be allowed only 2 refills. 

Insurers may require periodic renewals by the prescribing doctor, such as a new prescription every 6 months or year, before authorizing additional refills. Patients should be aware of their plan’s policies to avoid refill requests being denied.

5. Automatic Prescription Refills

Some pharmacies offer an auto-refill program where they automatically dispense refills when computer records show a patient is due. Patients must opt into these programs and provide payment information on file.

Auto-refill programs can be convenient for medications taken regularly long-term. However, patients should still monitor the refill dates and supply on hand to ensure no doses are missed. Disadvantages include waste if doses or medications change, and loss of chance to speak with a pharmacist about ongoing therapy.

When Should You Get a Prescription Refilled?

1. Before Your Medication Runs Out

It is important to refill prescriptions 3-5 days before you will run out of medication. Running out can mean missing doses, which harms adherence. According to the Annals of Pharmacotherapy, forgetfulness is one of the top reasons for medication nonadherence. Planning refills in advance helps avoid missed doses.

Refilling with some extra lead time also allows the pharmacy to process the request without an urgent rush. It provides a cushion in case the pharmacy needs to contact the prescriber for any reason before dispensing. Missing doses due to delays in processing a last-minute refill request can be prevented with some advance planning.

2. When Your Doctor Recommends It

Follow your doctor’s instructions regarding when to have prescriptions refilled. The number of refills and duration of therapy are determined based on the medication and condition being treated. Refilling only when the doctor has authorized more of the prescription ensures you are taking the medication as directed.

Doctors monitor disease control and medication safety at regular visits. They may decide to modify or discontinue the prescription at some point. Attempting to refill without their approval could lead to taking an inappropriate dose or outdated therapy. Scheduling refills in sync with prescribed treatment periods reinforces compliance with the plan of care.

3. If There Are Changes in Your Health Condition

A change in your health may prompt the need for an unplanned refill or medication adjustment. For example, if blood pressure spikes or blood sugar trends upward, a doctor may want to reinforce therapy by refilling a medication earlier than originally scheduled. Be sure to book an appointment for evaluation of any worsening conditions before requesting an early refill.

On the other hand, if side effects develop or a health condition improves, the doctor may decide to discontinue the medication or reduce the dose. In that case, refilling the existing higher dose is not advised without consulting the prescriber. Monitoring health changes ensures medication refills match the current care plan.

4. If You Are Traveling or Moving

When planning extended travel or a permanent move, schedule prescription refills to ensure an adequate supply when away from home. Requesting refills early to build up extra doses for travel helps avoid running out. Just be sure the insurance plan approves early refills for this purpose.

Also, enrolling in a mail order pharmacy program can facilitate refilling medications while traveling or moving. Transfers of prescriptions to a pharmacy at the destination in advance assists with continued care during transitions. Planningahead for refills prevents treatment disruptions when away from the usual pharmacy.

What Happens if You Don’t Get a Prescription Refilled on Time?

Failing to refill a prescription before it runs out means doses are missed until the next refill. For medications taken regularly long-term, this can have serious health consequences. For example, missing blood pressure or diabetes medications will lead to worsening control of those conditions.

Interrupted medication use also wastes previous treatment efforts. According to the Annals of Pharmacotherapy, medication nonadherence costs the U.S. healthcare system an estimated $300 billion per year due to the health impacts of untreated chronic conditions. Staying on top of refills prevents lapses in therapy.

In addition to harming health, late refills can be inconvenient. The pharmacy may be out of stock of the medication, causing a delay in resuming therapy. Weekend or holiday closures may also slow the process if a refill request cannot be approved until the next business day. Avoiding treatment lapses through timely refills can prevent health setbacks and treatment delays.

Can You Get a Prescription Refilled Early?

In some cases, prescriptions can be refilled earlier than the scheduled refill date. Reasons doctors may approve early refills include:

  • Upcoming travel or transfer to a new pharmacy
  • Larger dose prescribed necessitating more frequent refilling 
  • Poorly controlled condition requiring reinforcements of treatment
  • Proper timing with insurer’s refill-too-soon threshold

However, there are risks to early refills. Having extra unused medication increases risks of diversion, misuse, or accidents. Insurance may not cover the costs if refilled too soon. And taking medication faster than prescribed can result in unsafe shortages later on.

In general, early refills should be limited to extenuating circumstances and require the prescriber’s approval. Routine early refilling is inadvisable and suggests the need for reassessment of therapy. When contemplating an early refill, check with the insurance plan and discuss the situation openly with your doctor first.

What is the Role of Pharmacies in Prescription Refills?

Pharmacies and pharmacists perform several key functions related to the refill process:

  • Processing and filling refill requests
  • Checking available refills against the original prescription
  • Verifying with prescribers’ offices if any clarification is needed
  • Ensuring compliance with insurance coverage restrictions 
  • Advising patients on appropriate refill timing and usage
  • Training patients how to manage and track refills effectively
  • Identifying patterns suggesting poor adherence or inappropriate use
  • Educating patients about directions, side effects, and safe medication use

By serving as a checkpoint between patients and prescribers, pharmacists help ensure prescription refills are dispensed appropriately, safely, and in a manner promoting optimal adherence.

For example, Walmart has specific Refill policies in place governing when and how prescription refills are handled. Refills are permitted when up to 75% of the previous prescription supply has been used based on the days supply originally prescribed. Controlled substances like Adderall have more strict policies, with no refills allowed and new printed prescriptions required.

For most medications, Walmart allows customers to refill prescriptions when they have up to 9 days of medication left from the original prescription. However, pharmacists recommend refilling 3-5 days before the supply runs out for continuity of treatment.

Walmart pharmacists will review and verify remaining refills against the original prescription instructions before dispensing each refill. Following Walmart’s prescription refill policies promotes proper adherence and avoids misuse.

How Can Technology Help with Managing and Tracking Prescription Refills?

There are 5 main types of technology that patients can use to better track and manage prescription refills:

Pharmacy apps and websites: Many pharmacies now offer apps or websites that allow patients to easily request refills online. These portals often provide alerts when a medication is due for refill. Some apps can scan the barcode on a medication bottle and automatically detect when the refill timing is approaching.

Patient portals through electronic health records: Doctors’ offices frequently offer patient portal access to medical records. On these portals, patients can view prescription details, check on refill status, and request refills which integrate directly with e-prescribing.

Automated reminders: Pharmacies can set up automated calls, emails, or text reminders to alert patients when a refill is coming due. This helps prompt patients to take action and avoid lapses.

Mobile medication alerts: Prescription reminder apps for smart devices can track pill bottles or scan medication package barcodes. They provide alerts when it is time to refill.

Electronic prescribing: When prescriptions are directly transmitted from doctor to pharmacy electronically, it evades potential errors or delays of handwritten scripts. E-prescribing facilitates smooth processing of refills.

By taking advantage of technology like pharmacy apps, patient portals, reminders, and e-prescribing, patients can better manage medication supplies and stay adherent by refilling prescriptions promptly. These tools help patients effectively track refill due dates and take timely action.


Understanding when and how to refill your prescriptions is an important part of medication adherence and maintaining your health. Planning ahead, communicating with your doctor and pharmacy, and properly timing refills can help you reap the full benefits of the medications you are prescribed. Utilizing tools like pharmacy apps and reminders assists in staying compliant with the treatment plan established by your healthcare provider.