Safe Use of Medicines for Older Adults
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Medicines help us live longer and healthier. But, taking them the wrong way or mixing certain drugs can be dangerous. You need to be careful to keep track of your medicines and use them safely.
What Are Medicines? What Are Drugs?
Medicines, often referred to as drugs, can be:
- Prescriptions. What you can get only with a doctor’s order (for example, pills to lower your cholesterol or an asthma inhaler)
- Over-the-counter pills, liquids, or creams. What you buy without a prescription (for example, pills for headaches or chew tablets for heartburn)
- Vitamins, eye drops, or dietary supplements.
Make sure your doctor knows about ALL the medicines you take. This includes those prescribed by other doctors, as well as vitamins, supplements, herbal remedies, and over-the-counter drugs you use every now and then.
What You Need to Know About Your Medicines
Talk with your doctor, nurse, or other healthcare provider before starting a new medicine. Go over your allergies and any problems you have had with other medicines, such as rashes, trouble breathing, indigestion, dizziness, or mood changes.
You will also want to find out whether you’ll need to change or stop taking any of your other prescriptions or over-the-counter drugs while using this new medicine. Mixing some drugs can cause unpleasant and sometimes serious problems. For instance, it is dangerous to use aspirin when taking a blood-thinning medicine.
Because of this, it is important to keep a list of all prescription drugs and over-the-counter remedies you take. Print and fill out the Tracking Your Medications: Worksheet to help you keep track of your medications.
When starting a new medication, make sure to write down the name of the drug and why it’s being prescribed for you. Also, make note of any special instructions for how to take the medicine.
How Can a Pharmacist Help?
A pharmacist can answer many of your questions about prescriptions and over-the-counter drugs. Try to have all your prescriptions filled at the same pharmacy so your records are in one place. This will help alert the pharmacist if a new drug might cause a problem with something else you are taking. If you’re not able to use just one pharmacy, show the pharmacist at each pharmacy your list of medicines and over-the-counter drugs when you drop off your prescription.
When you have a prescription filled:
- Tell the pharmacist if you have trouble swallowing pills. There may be liquid medicine available. Do not chew, break, or crush tablets without first finding out if the drug will still work.
- Make sure you can read and understand the name of the medicine as well as the directions on the container and on the color-coded warning stickers on the bottle. If the label is hard to read, ask your pharmacist to use larger type.
- Check that you can open the container. If not, ask the pharmacist to put your medicines in bottles that are easier to open.
- Ask about special instructions on where to store a medicine. For example, should it be kept in the refrigerator or in a dry place?
- Check the label on your medicine before leaving the pharmacy. It should have your name on it and the directions given by your doctor. If it doesn’t, don’t take it, and talk with the pharmacist.
Check the label to ensure you are not allergic to any of the ingredients. Make sure your doctor and pharmacist have an up-to-date list of your allergies so they don’t give you a medicine that contains something you are allergic to.
Learn how to read a prescription label in the free booklet Safe Use of Medicines: Take Your Medicines the Right Way—Each Day!
Talk with your doctor or pharmacist if you have questions about the written information that comes with your prescription.
Unwanted or unexpected symptoms or feelings that occur when you take medicine are called side effects. Side effects can be relatively minor, such as a headache or a dry mouth. They can also be life-threatening, such as severe bleeding or irreversible damage to the liver or kidneys. Medications' side effects also can affect your driving.
If you experience side effects, write them down so you can report them to your doctor accurately. Call your doctor right away if you have any problems with your medicines or if you are worried that the medicine might be doing more harm than good. He or she may be able to change your medication to another that will work just as well.
Keeping Track of Your Medicines
Here are some tips to help you keep track of all your medicines:
- Make a list. Write down all medicines you take, including over-the-counter drugs and dietary supplements. The list should include the name of each medicine, amount you take, and time(s) you take it. If it’s a prescription, also note the doctor who prescribed it and reason it was prescribed. Show the list to all of your healthcare providers, including physical therapists and dentists. Keep one copy in a safe place at home and one in your wallet or pocketbook.
- Create a file. Save all the written information that comes with your medicines and keep it somewhere you can easily refer to it.
- Check expiration dates on bottles. If a medicine is past its expiration date, you may be able to dispose of it at your pharmacy, or, check with your doctor about how to safely discard it. Your doctor can also tell you if you will need a refill.
- Keep medicines out of reach of young children. Avoid taking medicines in front of them, as they might try to copy you. Also, if your medicines are kept in bottles without child safety caps because they are hard to open, be extra careful about where you store medicines.
Taking Medicines Safely
Here are some tips to help you take your medicines safely:
- Follow instructions. Read all medicine labels. Make sure to take your medicines the right way. For example, don’t use an over-the-counter cough and cold syrup if you only have a runny nose and no cough.
- Use the right amount. Don’t take a larger dose of a medicine thinking it will help you more. It can be very dangerous, even deadly. And, don’t skip or take half doses of a prescription drug to save money. (Talk with your doctor or pharmacist if you can’t afford the medicine. There may be help. Read Saving Money on Medicines for more information.)
- Take medicine on time. Some people use meals or bedtime as reminders to take their medicine. Other people use charts, calendars, or weekly pill boxes. You can also set timers and write reminders to take your medication.
- Turn on a light. Don’t take medicine in the dark; otherwise, you might make a mistake.
- Report problems. Call your doctor right away if you have any trouble with your prescription or over-the-counter medicine, or if you are worried that it might be doing more harm than good. There may be something else you can take.
- Tell your doctor about alcohol, tobacco, and drug use. Alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs can affect how well your medicines work. Be honest with your doctor about how much you use.
- Check before stopping. Take prescription medicine until it’s finished or until your doctor says it’s all right to stop. Note that some medicines are supposed to be taken only “as needed.”
- Don’t share. Do not take medicines prescribed for another person or give yours to someone else.
For More Information About Using Medicines Safely
U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
This content is provided by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health. NIA scientists and other experts review this content to ensure that it is accurate, authoritative, and up to date.
Content reviewed: June 26, 2019