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Medicines: Use Them Safely



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People over age 65 make up 12 percent of the American population, but they take 25 percent of all prescription drugs sold in this country. As a group, older people tend to have more long-term illnesses--such as arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease--than do younger people. Because they may have a number of diseases or disabilities at the same time, it is common for older people to take many different drugs.

Drugs can be wonderful tools for the care of people of all ages. Many people over age 65 owe their lives in part to new and improved medicines and vaccines. But for older adults, drug use may have risks, especially when several medicines are used at one time.

In general, drugs act differently in older people than in younger people. This may be due to normal changes in the body that happen with age. For instance, as you get older, you lose water and lean tissue (mainly muscle) and you gain more fat tissue. This can make a difference in how long a drug stays in your body and how much of the drug your body absorbs.

The kidneys and liver are two important organs that breakdown and remove most drugs from the body. As you age, these organs may not work as well as they used to, and drugs may leave the body more slowly.

Keep in mind that "drugs" can mean both medicines prescribed by your doctor and over-the-counter (OTC) medicines that you buy without a prescription. OTCís can include vitamins and minerals, laxatives, cold medicines, and antacids. Both prescription and OTC drugs can cause serious problems. Be very careful to take them exactly the way your doctor advises. To be safe, donít mix them together or with alcohol without first talking to your doctor.

You and your family should learn about the drugs you take and their possible side effects. Remember, drugs that are strong enough to cure you can also be strong enough to hurt you if they arenít used right.

The following tips can help you avoid risks and get the best results from your medicines.

  • DO take medicine in the exact amount and on the same schedule prescribed by your doctor.
  • DO always ask your doctor about the right way to take any medicine before you start to use it.
  • DO always tell your doctor about past problems you have had with drugs, such as rashes, indigestion, dizziness, or not feeling hungry.
  • DO keep a daily record of all the drugs you take. Include prescription and OTC drugs. Note the name of each drug, the doctor who prescribed it, the amount you take, and the times of day you take it. Keep a copy in your medicine cabinet and one in your wallet or pocketbook.
  • DO review your drug record with the doctor at every visit and whenever your doctor prescribes new medicine. Your doctor often gets new information about drugs that might be important to you.
  • DO make sure you can read and understand the drug name and the directions on the container. If the label is hard to read, ask your pharmacist to use large type.
  • DO check the expiration dates on your medicine bottles. Throw the medicine away if it has passed this date.
  • DO call your doctor right away if you have any problems with your medicines.

There are also some things you should remember not to do:

  • DO NOT stop taking a prescription drug unless your doctor says itís okay--even if you are feeling better. If you are worried that the drug might be doing more harm than good, talk with your doctor. He or she may be able to change your medicine to another one that will work just as well.
  • DO NOT take more or less than the prescribed amount of any drug.
  • DO NOT mix alcohol and medicine unless your doctor says itís okay. Some drugs may not work well or may make you sick if taken with alcohol.
  • DO NOT take drugs prescribed for another person or give yours to someone else.

Questions To Ask Your Doctor

Before leaving the doctorís office, ask these questions:

  • What is the name of the drug and what will it do?
  • How often should I take it?
  • How long should I take it?
  • When should I take it? As needed? Before, with, after, or between meals? At bedtime?
  • If I forget to take it, what should I do?
  • What side effects might I expect? Should I report them?
  • Is there any material about this drug that I can take with me?
  • If I donít take this drug, is there anything else that would work as well?


The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Consumer Affairs Office has more information about safe use of medicines. Contact the FDA at 5600 Fishers Lane, HFE 88, Rockville, MD 20857, or call: 301-443-3170.

The Elder Health Program has free information about older people and medications. Contact the Elder Health Program, School of Pharmacy, University of Maryland at Baltimore, 20 North Pine Street, Baltimore, MD 21201, or call: 410-706-3011.



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