Learning your medications is vital for passing the NCLEX and for practicing safe nursing. It's also the hardest, driest, and most overwhelming part of preparing for your licensing exam!
It’s easy to see why. There’s a seemingly endless list of meds, side effects, technical terms, and nursing considerations for Every. Single. One. of our modern medications. The good news is that there are certain medication facts you need to memorize and others you can bypass. In this guide, we'll cover it all: what you absolutely should know (and what you can probably do without) in order to master medications for the NCLEX.
Justine Buick, www.TheNCLEXTutor.com, has helped thousands of students navigate the maze of studying meds for the NCLEX. She’s partnered with Brainscape to create some great resources, and what follows are her top strategies for learning NCLEX medications in an efficient and time-conservative way.
What to learn for each NCLEX medication
If you tried to learn every single thing about each medication covered in nursing school, you’d still be studying for the NCLEX five years later. Fortunately, you don’t need to do this. Here’s a list of what you need to cover for each med:
- Medication classifications
- Medication prefixes and suffixes
- Generic names
- The indication
- How the medication works (and which bodily system it influences)
- Side effects (the most common and the serious, adverse reactions)
- Nursing considerations
If this still seems like a long list, that’s okay. The truth is that all of these factors relate to each other, so learning one will help you learn others. We’ll go into this in more detail next. As we go over the connections between each factor, you’ll see how they connect to make your job easier.
(Psssst. On the subject of making your job easier, check out our list of top apps for nurses and nursing students!)
1) Medication classifications
Here’s a list of the classifications you’ll need to learn:
- Anti Allergy drugs
- Anti Alzheimer’s
- Erectile dysfunction drugs
- H2 receptor blockers
- Muscle relaxers
- Proton pump inhibitors
- Stool softeners
Again, this may seem like a long list! (Welcome to the NCLEX). The good news is that if you learn these over several weeks or months, it’s quite manageable. After all, if you have to build a house, you do it one nail and board at a time. And the best way we know of to break all this learning into bite-sized chunks is by making use of the twelve Brainscape NCLEX Pharmacology flashcards (Available for both the RN & PN versions of the NCLEX).
Using this resource spaces out your learning into the most optimal intervals, and makes sure you review just the right amount to keep your new memories fresh. It’s the most efficient way to study for the NCLEX in general.
So, one long list of diuretics and antidiarrheals down … time to move on.
2) Prefixes and suffixes
As a nurse, it’s important to know your LOLs (beta-blockers) from your NITRO (antianginal). Learning the prefixes and suffixes for each classification of medication helps in two ways:
Firstly, it reduces what you need to learn: just memorize the suffix or the suffix, and not the whole medication name.
For example, beta-blockers all end in -lol. So when you’re learning a list of beta-blockers like:
You’ll just need to learn “-lol means “beta-blockers.”
Secondly, learning the prefixes and suffixes gives you another hook to hang your knowledge on.
For example, if a patient comes to you with unpleasant side effects from nebivolol, you will know immediately from the suffix that nebivolol is a beta-blocker. So, even if you’ve forgotten the exact particulars of the drug, your general knowledge of beta blockers will help you understand why the patient may be having side effects.
3) Generic names
For every drug, there’s a generic name, which refers to its chemical make-up. And then there’s the specific brand name developed and trademarked by a pharmaceutical company.
For example, the generic name for a strong opioid analgesic is Fentanyl. Some of the brand names for this drug are: Sublimaze, Actiq, Duragesic, Fentora, Abstral, Lazanda, and (many) others.
You’ll need to learn only the generic names — and not all these brand names — for the NCLEX.
4) The indication
The indication is what the drug is used for. For example, ACE inhibitors are used for decreasing blood pressure and heart rate to prevent myocardial infarction.
Understanding what the different medications are used for (and how to safely use them) is a baseline requirement of your nursing education. Nurses must safely administer medications, answer patient questions, and identify side effects and adverse reactions. This requires nurses to have a thorough working knowledge of the most common medications prescribed.
5) How it works
How medication works is called the mechanism of action. In essence, it’s how the medication works in the body at the cellular level. Knowing this provides a useful scaffold for connecting the drug to the indication and the side effects.
For example, you know that ACE inhibitors treat hypertension – that’s the indication.
The way they do this, (the mechanism of action) is by preventing the conversion of angiotensin I to angiotensin II. Angiotensin II is a potent vasoconstrictor. In other words, ACE inhibitors help to enlarge blood vessels, which, therefore, decreases blood pressure.
There are many ways to work on adding knowledge to your memory inventory. Flashcards are an excellent way. Another complementary way is to have a good understanding of how the facts you’re learning fit together. When you connect cause and effect in a strong framework, you’re adding extra ‘hooks’ your brain can use to retrieve information during your test.
Therefore, knowing the mechanism of action for medication is important, both to give you a good knowledge base for using meds, and to help you memorize all the most common uses and side effects.
6) Side effects and adverse reactions
Medication is a double-edged sword. It can save lives, but if it’s applied inappropriately, it can cause harm or even death. It’s estimated that 125,000 Americans die each year from prescription medications. This is why it’s so important for nurses to know the most common side effects and adverse reactions for the medications the patient may be taking.
Have you ever read the back of a pill bottle? Drug companies these days list every possible side effect that can arise (and several that have been noted in only a single patient). Fortunately, you don’t need to memorize this whole list for the NCLEX. There’s a much more strategic approach to take that will serve you well.
Side effects fall into two categories, and it’s a good idea to learn these for each med you study.
Category 1: common side effects
You don’t have to learn every single side effect possible: just the most common ones and these are covered in Brainscape’s NCLEX RN flashcards (Also, available for the NCLEX PN). You may also find them by using a nursing drug guide.
Category 2: KILLER side effects (adverse reactions)
In rare cases, medications can have severe adverse reactions such as anaphylaxis or an extensive rash. These serious adverse reactions are highly likely to feature in the NCLEX exam because a top priority of this test is to assess whether student nurses can be safe and effective when caring for patients.
7) Nursing considerations
Nursing considerations are the interventions you need to do when giving medication. This includes things like labs to check before giving a med, assessments to make, teaching the patient about med administration, and any contraindications.
For example: orthostatic hypotension can be a side effect of calcium channel blockers. Therefore, a nursing consideration when administering them would be to check the patient’s blood pressure to make sure it’s not too low (< 100/60) before administration.
Another example: beta-blockers can cause bronchoconstriction, so administering them to a client with asthma could cause an increase in difficulty breathing.
Answering NCLEX practice questions is a great way to test your ability to combine your knowledge of side effects and nursing considerations to make good decisions and ace the NCLEX.
[Hey! Do you know the difference between the NCLEX RN and PN exams? Make sure you do so that you're prepared!]
How to learn NCLEX meds
Now that we’ve covered what to learn when you’re studying NCLEX medications, it’s time to look at how you can best and most efficiently learn these facts.
The most efficient way we’ve worked out for students is by using the Brainscape flashcards developed in partnership with Justine Buick of www.theNCLEXtutor.com.
These flashcards cover all the most important facts you’ll need to know in order to pass the NCLEX, organized in a way that makes studying hyper-efficient and painless. (Yes, we do understand how painful it can be to force-memorize hundreds of medications.) The good news is, once all these facts are in your long term memory, you’ll be able to draw on this knowledge for the rest of your nursing career, even in high stakes environments.
Brainscape NCLEX-RN flashcards cover all 8 sections of the exam. The Pharmacology section is further broken down into 12 card decks, consisting of almost 500 cards in total. Or if you're preparing for the NCLEX PN, we've got you covered for that exam as well.
What sets Brainscape’s adaptive flashcard learning platform apart from paper cards?
It leverages key principles in cognitive science to help you learn and remember the information.
As you answer each card (which makes use of the highly effective active recall method of learning) you rate how well you knew the answer. Brainscape’s algorithm then uses spaced repetition to time how often you need to revisit cards to commit the information to your long term memory.
This is how students using Brainscape flashcards can learn up to twice as fast: the content is delivered to them at optimal intervals, and they revisit old material just enough to keep it fresh in their memory.
Also, the Brainscape app allows you to sync your flashcards across multiple devices. Instead of having to heave NCLEX review books across town (free weight training, anybody?), you can use your smartphone or tablet to quickly revise in those in-between times: while waiting for a bus, or for your partner to finally choose which Netflix show to watch tonight. (Our Planet? Star Trek? The Godfather?)
You can also use Brainscape to make your own flashcards. This is especially useful for those facts that you just won’t stick. This is where you can use unusual imagery (you can make flashcards with pictures) or even record audio for word associations to make the knowledge stick.
Summary: how to study NCLEX meds
In summary, NCLEX medications are a body of knowledge many students find overwhelming. However, learning what you need to is not quite as difficult as it first appears.
For common medications, you’ll need to know:
- Prefixes and suffixes
- Generic names
- Indications (what the medication is for)
- How the medication works
- Side effects and adverse reactions
- Nursing considerations
Using Brainscape NCLEX-RN flashcards or Brainscape NCLEX-PN flashcards, you can do this with just a little study each day. The Brainscape algorithm will keep your learning at the optimal pace so you can efficiently commit this body of knowledge to memory. This is how passing the NCLEX becomes a straightforward task, so you can move on to helping many people in a successful nursing career.
**NCLEX-RN® is a registered trademark of the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), which neither sponsors nor endorses this product.