How many pills do YOU take every day? Do you know their names and what they are for? Have you ever changed the dose of your medication yourself (used a little more or a little less, depending on how you were feeling)? A large number of older adults take one or more medications every day. As people age, they are more likely to develop multiple chronic diseases that require medication. The normal changes that occur in body organs such as the liver, kidneys, and heart can lead to an increased risk of overdose or side effects. In addition, there are many underlying social issues affecting medication use. So are medications helpful or harmful? Let’s see how you can learn to get the least risk and most benefit from your medications.
When health care providers talk about medications, exactly what are they referring to? The term “medications” refers not only to the pills you take that have been prescribed by a physician, but also any vitamins, herbal and dietary supplements, creams and ointments, eye drops, and “over-the-counter” products. It is important when discussing medications with health care providers that you include all of these products in your discussion. Even products as common as Tylenol can have undesirable or even dangerous side effects when combined with other medications. Also remember to include products that you may have been using for a long period of time. As we age, the way our bodies process and utilize medications changes, so the medication that you have used for years with no apparent difficulties may cause issues in the future.
Who is at greatest risk for potential harm from inappropriate medication use? People who live alone do not have another individual immediately present who will notice subtle changes in functioning that may affect or be the result of medication use. Those who are experiencing some memory issues may forget to take their medication or may take extra doses. If you take three or more medications (including everything listed above) it is easier to get them mixed up, especially if they look similar or have similar names. Multiple medications also increase the possibility of interactions with each other, which may lead to side effects such as physical complaints, decreased effectiveness of the medications, or hypersensitivity to the desired effect of the medications. Obtaining prescriptions from more than one doctor or filling prescriptions at more than one pharmacy can prevent the safeguard of physicians and pharmacists screening for potential medication interactions if these health care providers are not aware of all of the medications which are being used by the consumer. Any of the above factors can be experienced by individuals of all ages, but the likelihood of having one or more of these factors present is increased for senior citizens, making them especially vulnerable to unsafe medication use.
So what can you do if medication is a required part of your treatment plan? Follow the tips below to reduce your risks and maximize the benefits of your medication use.
- Carry a complete list of ALL of your medications in your wallet at all times. Include the name of the product, the dose, and how often you take it.
- Talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you have financial concerns that may prevent you from using a specific type of medication. Often, less expensive substitutes are available.
- If you have difficulty with your eyesight, have someone double check your ability to correctly read the labels on your medication containers.
- Difficulty opening medication containers? Ask your pharmacist about other options for packaging your medications.
- Discuss any physical symptoms you experience with your doctor, even if they seem insignificant. Unpleasant side effects can lead to decreased compliance with taking medications. A change in dose or type of medication may relieve or reduce the undesired symptoms.
- Pick nonprescription medications that treat only the specific symptoms you are experiencing. (For example, if you have nasal congestion, use a decongestant only, instead of a multi-symptom cold reliever containing pain medication or a cough suppressant that you don’t really need). If symptoms do not go away or get worse, check with your doctor.
- Have a new prescription? Make sure you understand the details of it before leaving the doctor’s office. Details include the name of the medication, what it is for, the dose, when and how often to take it, special considerations such as if it should be taken with or without food, and how long you should expect to take this type of medication.
- Are you taking too many pills in the morning? Ask your doctor or pharmacist if some once daily medications can be taken at another time of day instead.
- Have trouble swallowing pills? Mix them whole in something soft, such as applesauce or pudding. Some medications may also be available in liquid form, however, there may be a price difference.
- Use a pill organizer if you take multiple medications once or multiple times daily. The organizers come in different sizes and styles to meet your medication needs, and can be an easy way to check if you forget whether or not you have taken your medications.
- Store medications appropriately. Most medications should be kept in a cool, dry place (which is NOT the bathroom!) Some may be sensitive to light, or require refrigeration. Improper storage may lead to decreased effectiveness of the medication.
- Is your medication regimen too complicated? Check with your doctor or pharmacist to see if the number or frequency of medications can be reduced. A simpler medication routine can increase compliance and positive outcomes when using multiple medications.
Karen Kaslow, RN, BSN
Elder Care Coordinator