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Medicines: Common Questions Answered

Older man talking to pharmacist about medicine

People who are over 65 years old tend to take more medicines than any other age group. Because older adults may have a number of diseases or health problems at the same time, it is common for them to take many different kinds of drugs. Here are some answers to common questions older adults may have about their medications.

I've been taking the same prescription medicine for years. Even though I'm careful to take the same amount as always, the medicine is not working like it did in the past. What is happening?

As you age, normal changes happen in the body. You lose water and muscle tone. Also, your kidneys and liver may not pass the drugs as quickly through your system as when you were younger. This means that many medicines act differently in older people. Medicine may take longer to leave your system. Talk to your doctor if you think your medicine is not working as it should.

Why should I talk to my doctor about the herbal remedies, vitamins, and over-the-counter (OTC) medicines I take, along with my regular prescriptions?

It is very important to tell your doctor about all the medicines you take. Taking certain OTC medicines with your prescription drugs can be dangerous. For example, you should not take aspirin if you take warfarin (Coumadin®, Jantoven®) for heart problems.

Some OTC drugs, vitamins, and other remedies can lead to serious problems if used too often or with certain other drugs. Combining drugs without talking to your doctor could make you sick.

Why do I need to keep track of the active ingredients in my medications?

Learn which active ingredients are in the prescription and OTC medicines you take so that you don't take more than one medicine that contains the same active ingredient(s). For example, if your cough syrup contains acetaminophen, don't take it at the same time as a pain reliever that contains acetaminophen. Taking more than one medicine with the same active ingredient could result in getting too much of that ingredient, which could damage your liver or lead to other serious health problems.

My doctor used abbreviations in my prescription, but I'm not sure what they mean. How do I find out?

Doctors and pharmacists often use abbreviations or terms that may not be familiar. Here is an explanation of some of the most common abbreviations you will see on the labels of your prescription medications:

Common Abbreviations for Prescriptions
Abbreviation Explanation
p.r.n. as needed
q.d. every day
b.i.d. twice a day
t.i.d. three times a day
q.i.d. four times a day
a.c. before meals
p.c. after meals
h.s. at bedtime
p.o. by mouth
ea. each

What are side effects?

Unwanted or unexpected symptoms or feelings, such as upset stomach, sleepiness, and dizziness, that happen when you take a medicine are called side effects. Some side effects happen just when you start taking a medicine. Some happen only once in a while. But other side effects may make you want to stop taking the medicine. Tell your doctor if this happens. He or she may be able to prescribe a different medicine or help you deal with side effects in other ways.

I'm getting sick to my stomach a lot since I started my new pills. Some days I feel so sick I think about not taking the medicine. What should I do?

Talk to your doctor about any side effects before you stop taking any medicines. Your doctor may have tips that can help, such as eating a light snack with your pills. You may want to talk to your doctor about switching to a new medicine.

What does it mean to take medicines on an empty stomach?

Taking medicines on an empty stomach means that you should take your pills 2 hours before you eat or 2 hours after you eat.

Two examples:

  1. Eat first and take the pills 2 hours later. If you eat breakfast at 8 a.m., wait until 10 a.m. to take your pills.
  2. Or take the pills first and eat 2 hours later. If you take your pills at 8:00 a.m., wait until 10 a.m. to eat.

In both cases, your stomach will be empty enough for the pills to work.

I'm feeling better. Is it okay to stop taking my medicine?

No, even if you are feeling better, you should not stop taking your prescription drug unless your doctor says it is okay.

For more information about taking medicines safely, see Safe Use of Medicines for Older Adults.

This content is provided by the NIH National Institute on Aging (NIA). NIA scientists and other experts review this content to ensure it is accurate and up to date.