Sun. Nov 27th, 2022


senior couple at kitchen table reviewing medicine label information


Whether you’re settling into your sixties or heading into your nineties, be careful when taking prescription and over-the-counter medicines, herbal preparations, and supplements. And if you’re caring for older loved ones, help them stay safe too.

Why the special concern? The older you get, the more likely you are to use additional medicines, which can increase the chance of harmful side effects, including interactions. And, as you age, physical changes can affect the way medicines are handled by your body, leading to potential complications. For instance, your liver and kidneys may not work as well, which affects how a drug breaks down and leaves your body.

“No matter how hard we fight it, our body changes over time. We tend to lose muscle and gain fat. This changes the way medicine works in our body,” said Lt. Cmdr. Zachary Oleszczuk, who has a doctorate in pharmacy, and is a board-certified geriatric pharmacist and team leader in the FDA’s Division of Drug Information. “This means that medicines may need to be adjusted or changed later in life, even if they have worked very well for you for years or even decades.”

Read on for important safety tips.

1. Take Medicine as Prescribed — with Input from Your Health Care Provider

illustration of woman at desktop computer communicating virtually with her healthcare providers

Take your medicine regularly and according to your health care provider’s instructions. If you’re having bothersome side effects or have other questions, talk to your provider.

Don’t take prescription medication your health care provider has not prescribed for you. Taking someone else’s prescription medication can be very dangerous.

  • If you have a symptom like pain and take another person’s prescription pain medication instead of seeing a doctor, your medical problem could get worse.

  • Misuse of medications, such as taking someone else’s prescription opioids, may lead to addiction.

  • Doctors consider many factors, such as allergies and drug interactions, before prescribing medication for a patient. Taking unprescribed medication can have unexpected side effects or cause serious reactions.

Conversely, don’t skip doses or stop taking a prescribed medication without first consulting your provider – even if you’re feeling better or if you think the medicine isn’t working.

  • Many antibiotics must be taken even after an infection stops bothering you in order to work.

  • Not taking your medicine as prescribed by a doctor, or as instructed by a pharmacist, could lead to your disease getting worse, hospitalization, or even death.

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that in the United States, 125,000 deaths occur every year because of medicines not being taken correctly.

“The best medicine in the world won’t work unless you take it correctly,” Oleszczuk said. “For instance, medicines that treat chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes only work when taken regularly and as directed. It’s important to keep  taking these medications even though you don’t feel sick. High blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes can cause damage to your body before you notice something is wrong. These medicines work best when you take them regularly.”

Dosing for medications is based on clinical trials. “Every medicine is different and is dosed according to what’s been tested,” Oleszczuk said, “which is one reason why you shouldn’t select or change a dose yourself.”

If you are having trouble remembering how and when to take your medicine, talk with your pharmacist or other health care provider. They may have tools such as prefilled pillboxes, automated reminders attached to pill bottles, and other options to help you take the right medicine, at the right dose, and at the right time.

2. Store your Medicines Properly and Check the Expiration Date

illustration of various prescription medicine bottles on shelves in a cabinet

Proper storage is one way to help make sure your medicines remain safe and effective. Medicines that are not stored properly may not work as well or may cause harm, even if they are not expired. 

Be sure to read the information you were provided to find specific storage instructions for your medicine. Certain medicines need to be stored in the refrigerator, while others cannot be exposed to high temperatures.

Most medicines are best stored up and away, in a cool, dry place such as a high dresser drawer, storage box, closet shelf, or kitchen cabinet, keeping them away from hot appliances and sinks.

Storing medicines in the bathroom can expose it to wide fluctuations of heat and humidity, even if the medicine is stored in a cabinet. For these reasons, it is best not to store any medicines in your bathroom.

When storing medicine in a busy area of your home, like the kitchen, care should be taken to keep all medicines up and away from children. Children are especially at risk of accidental poisoning and may take a medicine because it looks like candy. If you have questions about how to safely store your medicines, contact your pharmacist or health care provider.

Especially for those medicines you don’t use every day, check your current medication list and the expiration date of the medicine before using them. Some people may still have that bottle of aspirin they bought years ago which is now expired. Over the course of our lifetime it is easy to find ourselves with old, expired prescription and OTC medicines on the shelf. If your medicine is expired, do not use it.

It’s important to be aware that there are several potential harms that may occur from taking an expired medicine. If  medicine has degraded, it might not provide the intended benefit. In addition, when  medicine degrades it may yield toxic compounds that could cause unwanted side effects. Those with serious and life-threatening diseases may be particularly vulnerable to potential harm from expired medicines. 

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