Medication Safety for Seniors

For many seniors, medications play a big role in managing health problems. Remember, however, that all medications, whether prescribed by a doctor or bought over the counter, have potentially toxic side effects that can cause significant problems. Read on to find out several simple but important steps for avoiding the risk.

There are two types of medications: prescription drugs (which can only be taken under a doctor's supervision) and over-the-counter medicines, which are available without a prescription. Both types are serious medicines, and need to be used properly, both individually and in combination with other medicines.

Medicines play an important part in improving health and prolonging life. They are beneficial in controlling many of the diseases and other health concerns that seniors experience, such as arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoporosis and heart disease. Sometimes the right medication can prevent hospitalization or reduce the length of a hospital stay.

Any single medical disorder may require the use of more than one drug. And a patient may have a combination of conditions or diseases that requires the use of several different medications. The more conditions and drugs involved, the more caution is required in order to avoid side effects—unintended bad results from a drug. In seniors, side effects can cause depression, increase the risk of falls, even mimic dementia.

Some drugs are known to cause potentially serious problems for seniors. As we age, our bodies begin to respond differently to medications. For example, it takes longer for substances to be eliminated from the body than it did when we were younger, so we may need a lower dosage of a drug. And the side effects of some medications may become more serious. Overmedication, a major concern with many seniors, can occur if a person…

  • fails to stop using a drug when directed by the prescriber
  • uses another person's medications
  • takes a medication in excess of recommended dosage
  • uses a number of different medications which have a similar effect.

Some drugs can also have serious interactions with certain other drugs. For patients seeing two or more care providers at the same time, this presents a special challenge. It is important to keep a complete, updated list of the medications a senior takes—both prescription and non-prescription—and take this list along to each visit to a health care provider.

In addition, the patient should carefully follow the prescribed regimen (frequency of dosage, length of treatment, proper storage, consumption with or without food, and so forth) in order to ensure the best results and minimize the risk of adverse effects.

A person's health care practitioner needs certain information about the medications the patient takes. He or she may ask:

  1. What prescription and over-the-counter medications are you currently taking?
  2. How are you taking them?
  3. What medications are you allergic to, and what happens when you take those medications?
  4. Have any medications ever caused undesirable side effects, such as rash, headaches, drowsiness, dizziness or nausea?

Medication Safety Do's and Don'ts

Here are some important facts for seniors and their loved ones to know about taking medications:

DO…

DO bring a list of all medications—prescription and over the counter—to doctor visits, and have the doctor review all medications.
DO be sure to take all the medication prescribed for you.
DO have a system to remember what medications you've taken and when to take them, especially if you take several different drugs.
DO drink a full glass of water when taking tablets or capsules. Always take them standing or sitting—not lying down.
DO chew chewable tablets thoroughly and wash them down with a glass of water.
DO shake bottles of liquid medications before use.
DO always store medications out of the reach of children.
DO take antacids or laxatives either two hours before or two hours after taking other medications.
DO try to use a single pharmacy to fill all your prescriptions; your pharmacist can help you avoid drug interactions.
DO report any symptoms to your doctor. He/she will help you decide if the symptoms are caused by the medication, and if you should stop taking it.
DO be alert for side effects that could increase the risk of falling, such as dizziness and balance problems, fatigue or drowsiness, confusion, loss of coordination or weakness.

DON'T....

DON'T take more or less than the prescribed dosage, unless directed to do so by your doctor.
DON'T stop taking a medication suddenly without checking with your doctor—even if you feel better.
DON'T mix alcohol and medicine, unless approved by your doctor. Many drugs react in a negative way when combined with alcohol.
DON'T take medication prescribed for someone else or give yours to another person.
DON'T keep old or expired medications.
DON'T ignore side effects—call your physician!

SOURCE: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge, © IlluminAge 2013