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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:
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.
Source: University of North Carolina School of Medicine
- 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?
- 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.
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.
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More information on Medication safety
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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.
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Content last updated August 12, 2010.
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