Crushing tablets and opening capsules

Last updated: February 07, 2020

Key points
Some patients are not able to swallow tablets/capsules, or may have feeding tubes, but:
  • Don't crush modified-release or enteric-coated ('EC') tablets as it may stop the medicine working properly or cause more side effects.
  • Don't crush cytotoxic (chemotherapy) tablets because the dust might be harmful if breathed in or spilled.
  • Some tablets will disperse in water without crushing and some capsules can be opened (see Info sources, below). Yet they may taste unpleasant, and they may not be suitable for putting down a feeding tube.
  • Sometimes a different formulation of the same medicine, or a similar medicine, may be more appropriate for your patient (e.g. oral liquids, soluble tablets, patches etc). 
  • Crushing a tablet, dissolving it in water, or opening a capsule may be an unlicensed use.

Info sources

✦  Subscribe to the NEWT Guidelines website as an individual or ask your practice/ employer to subscribe. It will answer many of these questions for you. NEWT identifies alternative products that may be suitable for your patient as well as many tablets that disperse in water without the need for crushing. It was written by NHS pharmacists and costs as little as £60.
✦  Members of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS), have free access to the Handbook of Drug Administration via Enteral Feeding Tubes which answers some of these questions. You must log on to the RPS site to access it.
✦  Specialist Pharmacy Service (SPS) offers guidance on drug choice for patients who can't swallow tablets or capsules. This includes identifying tablets that disperse in water and advice on choosing alternative formulations. SPS also advise about dose changes when switching from a tablet to an oral liquid for certain medicines.
✦  There are various guides from UK hospitals describing tablets that can be dispersed in water or crushed. Here is an example from Colchester Hospital University NHS Trust (PDF). Decide for yourself whether guidelines like this are ok to use; some have not been updated for a few years.
✦  The Medicines for Children website has advice and videos on giving certain medicines, including  to kids who can't swallow. Some of this advice may be suitable for adults too. Search the site by drug name.
✦  Occasionally an SmPC for a medicine will give the manufacturer's advice about crushing tablets or opening capsules.

Decision making

It is not possible to cover every eventuality, but the four questions below may help you make decisions about a patient that cannot swallow tablets or capsules. It is not comprehensive guidance.
1. Can the medicine be stopped? (It is no longer required, not essential, or there are non-drug options.)
No          Yes  Stop the medicine if it is safe and appropriate (e.g. consider withdrawal reactions).
2. Do the info sources above advise you what to do? (e.g. crushing tablets, dissolving them in water, or opening capsules.)
No          Yes  Proceed according to advice given if it is suitable for your patient.
3. Is there a different presentation of the medicine, or a similar medicine, that's suitable? (e.g. oral liquids, soluble tablets, patches etc.)
No          Yes  Change the formulation if appropriate.
4. Is it modified-release, enteric-coated, or cytotoxic? (Usually these tablets can't be crushed or capsules opened for safety reasons.)
No          Yes  Contact the prescriber 
Contact your nearest NHS medicines advice service to discuss, or if you are not sure what to do.

General advice

✦  Practical advice on dispersing tablets in water or crushing them is provided free on the NEWT website.
✦  The implications of crushing tablets and opening capsules, and the formulations for which this is unsuitable, are described in summary guidance from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (2011). SPS also offers general background information about crushing tablets, opening capsules etc.
✦  Covert administration of a medicine requires careful consideration. The Care Quality Commission (CQC) states it should be a last resort and offers guidance; SPS also summarises current advice on this subject.
✦  Patient information. There's a brief guide on the NHS website for patients, explaining why tablets shouldn't be crushed unless a healthcare professional advises it.