If there’s one class that nursing students universally struggle with, it’s pharmacology. Whether your school teaches it as a standalone class or you’re left to learn it as you go, there are a few things you can do to prepare ahead of time.  

So dust off your A&P resources and plan to review these core concepts prior to starting pharmacology:

  • RAAS: This system will come into play with medications aimed at affecting blood pressure. A great example is lisinopril (an ACE-inhibitor)
  • Autonomic nervous system: Understanding the ANS is absolutely key. Recall that the ANS includes the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). 
  • Alpha and beta receptors: Many medications stimulate or block alpha and beta receptors. If you have a core understanding of what these receptors do, then you’ll automatically know what these drugs do in the body. Examples are metoprolol (beta blocker) and phenylephrine (alpha1agonist).
  • Cholinergic agonists and antagonists: Cholinergic agonists are used to treat myasthenia gravis and Alzheimer’s Disease while anticholinergics treat things like bradycardia (Atropine), motion sickness (scopolamine) and bronchospasm (Atrovent).
  • Acetylcholine receptors (muscarinic vs nicotinic): If you understand the difference between these two types of receptors, you’ll have key background knowledge that can help you understand how these drugs work (and what side effects they are likely to cause).
  • Neurotransmitters: A general understanding of key neurotransmitters and what they do can help you understand a wide range of medications. These include norepinephrine, acetylcholine, dopamine, serotonin, and epinephrine.
  • Endocrine system and feedback loops: A quick review of the endocrine system will help you understand a lot of medications and disease conditions (which are often treated with hormones of some kind). This affects the feedback loops, so having a solid understanding of how these work will help you conceptualize these medications, rather than just memorizing them.

A couple more things to make pharm easier

If you find that you have extra time, take a moment to make a list of common suffixes and which drug classes they relate to. Or, you can download my FREE suffix guide here.

For example, beta blockers end in -olol, and ACE inhibitors end in -pril. These naming conventions are the ONE great thing about pharmacology…you can often tell a lot about a drug just by knowing its suffix and some key facts about that particular drug class.

A word about drug classes

Another key thing to understand is that there are pharmacologic drug classes and therapeutic drug classes. A pharmacologic classification tells you why and how the medication works while a therapeutic classification tells you what it does. For example, a drug like metoprolol has two classifications. It is a beta blocker (pharmacologic class) and an antihypertensive (therapeutic class). Other drugs, such as dexmedetomidine  just have a therapeutic class (sedative/hypnotic). 

Learn more organizing strategies in Crucial Concepts Bootcamp

Get ahead of the game

If you want to get a jump start on reviewing some of this information, we cover RAAS, ANS, neurotransmitters, alpha/beta receptors and cholinergic/anticholinergics in Crucial Concepts Bootcamp

Want to review this on the run? Get this on audio in episode 133 of the Straight A Nursing podcast here or wherever you get your podcasts.

Review key pharmacology concepts and over 80 drug classes, each in 5 minutes or less, in my audio-based program Fast Pharmacology. This program is perfect for use while you’re in nursing school, studying for NCLEX, or wanting to gain confidence administering medications as a working nurse. Learn more here!


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