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Medication safety

close-focus on elderly hands dispensing two medicine capsules into the right hand

Because older adults often use many medicines, they need to be extra careful. Using multiple medicines puts you at risk for drug interactions. Drug interactions can happen when different drugs react badly to each other. For instance, they might make each other stronger or weaker. Or mixing might cause an allergic reaction. Symptoms could include a rash, upset stomach, or sleepiness. Interactions can become serious, so report them to your doctor right away.

Aging also can cause changes in the way your body reacts to a drug. You might digest a drug more slowly so that it takes longer to leave your body. This might cause you to get too much medicine. This causes a drug overdose.

Make sure you tell your doctor about all the supplements and drugs you are using. Some doctors like it if you bring all your medicines to your appointment so he or she can look at each one. Include all:

  • Prescription drugs – These are the ones your doctor prescribes for you.
  • Over-the-counter medications – These are drugs like aspirin, allergy medicine, and anti-acids. You can buy them at the drug store or grocery without a prescription.
  • Supplements – These include vitamins, fish oil, and herbal products like St. John's wort or Echinacea.

Are you at risk?

If you take prescription drugs and answer yes to any of the questions below, you could be at increased risk of a harmful drug interaction. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about ways to prevent problems.

  • Do you use herbs, vitamins, or over-the-counter medicines?
  • Do you need to use medicine more than once a day?
  • Do you have arthritis?
  • Do you use different pharmacies to fill your prescriptions?
  • Do you have poor vision or hearing?
  • Do you live alone?
  • Do you sometimes forget to use your medicine?
Source: University of North Carolina School of Medicine

If your doctor knows about all the medicines you are using, she or he can help prevent any harmful interactions. Your doctor may also find that you're using something you don't need.

Filling all of your prescriptions at the same pharmacy can be helpful. Most pharmacies have computer systems that help the pharmacist spot possible drug interactions.

When using any kind of drug, make sure to read the drug label for instructions. Not following the instructions can hurt your health. Read the label each time you use a drug, just in case there have been changes to it since the last time you used it. If you read the label and still have questions, call your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist for help.

More information on Medication safety

Explore other publications and websites

  • Age Page: Medicines: Use Them Safely - This publication describes the difference between prescription drugs and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. It also offers tips to avoid safety risks and get the best results from your medication at home, at the doctor's office, and at the pharmacy.
  • Buying Prescription Medicine Online: A Consumer Safety Guide - This fact sheet discusses purchasing medications on the Internet, including information on the pros and cons of doing so and safety tips to consider.
  • Drug Interactions: What You Should Know - This fact sheet explains how drugs interact with other drugs. It gives a brief overview of common drug interactions and discusses the importance of talking with your doctor about any medications you are using.
  • Get Connected! Linking Older Adults With Medication, Alcohol and Mental Health Resources - This kit can help service providers identify, educate, and screen older adults for emotional and substance use problems. Components of the kit include: fact sheets, a video, consumer brochures, training guides and curricula, and a services resource guide.
  • Medicines and You: A Guide for Older Adults - This booklet provides a guide for older Americans on how to keep track of and safely use prescription and over-the-counter medications.
  • The New Over-the-Counter Medicine Label: Take a Look - This fact sheet is a guide for how to read the Drug Facts label for over-the-counter medicines. It explains what is on the label, what it means, and where you can find it.
  • Safe Use of Medicines - This booklet discusses practical tips to make sure you are using all your medicines correctly. This booklet also provides examples of other older adults practicing medicine safety.
  • Taking Medicines - This publication provides information on medicines and your body. It provides information on how to use medicines safely, how to test medicines, and the medicines in the future that may improve one's health.

Connect with other organizations

Content last updated August 12, 2010.

Resources last updated September 16, 2013.

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