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Medication Safety for Older Adults

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Aug 31, 2022.

What do I need to know about medication safety for older adults?

Medication safety includes taking the right medicine, at the right time, and at the right dose. Medicines can affect older adults differently than they affect younger adults or children. Make sure anyone who helps you knows the safety information and specific instructions for all your medicines.

What are some common medicine challenges for older adults?

  • Several medicines are taken within the same time period. This can cause any of the following challenges:
    • The medicines may need to be taken at different times of the day. Some may be taken with food, and others without food.
    • Several medicines look alike. This can cause confusion if you are not sure which medicine you need to take at a certain time. You may accidentally take the wrong medicine, or forget to take a medicine.
    • Certain medicines can increase or decrease the effects of other medicines. Some medicines can cause side effects as they interact.
  • Certain medicines are less safe for older adults. You may plan to take a medicine you have taken for years, not realizing it is less safe as you get older. An example is NSAIDs for pain and inflammation, such as ibuprofen or naproxen. NSAIDs can increase the risk for stomach bleeding. This problem can be worse for older adults.
  • Medicine labels can be hard to read. The label may have small print. The information may be confusing or hard to understand.
  • Care is received from several providers. You may have 1 primary care doctor but also receive care from specialists. Each healthcare provider may prescribe or recommend different medicines.
  • Medicines are needed for a short time after a surgery or procedure. The new medicines may interact with medicines you take every day.
  • Medicine side effects are not clear. Side effects can be overlooked because they are similar to effects from a medical condition you have. For example, you may often feel dizzy from high blood pressure and not recognize dizziness from a new medicine.
  • Medicines have interactions you did not expect. For example, certain foods can keep a medicine from working correctly. Health conditions can also make a medicine harmful. An example is high blood pressure, which can make certain cold medicines dangerous.

What are some general medicine safety guidelines?

  • Take your medicine as directed. Do not split or crush pills unless directed. If you miss a dose, ask how to make up the missed dose. Do not try to make your medicine last longer by skipping doses. Do not take medicines for longer than needed. For example, an opioid prescribed for pain after surgery may not be needed after a few days.
  • Check the label each time before you take a medicine. Turn on a light to make sure you are taking the right medicine. Do not take any medicine that is expired or looks like it was tampered with. Ask your healthcare provider or a pharmacist to explain anything on the label you do not understand. Use glasses or a magnifying glass if it is hard to read the label. Your pharmacy may also be able to give you large print labels.
  • Take the medicine at the right time. Be sure you understand how often you should or can take the medicine. Keep track of when you need the medicine and when you took it. You may want to use a reminder on your phone, or a timer. Make sure every person who helps you can access the tracking and timing information.
  • Keep medicines organized.
    • Store medicines in the bottles they came in. Do not remove the labels.
    • Do not dump all your pills into a bag or box. Many pills look alike, and it is important to keep them separate until used. You can move the pills from their bottles into a pill box to organize your daily medicines for the week.
    • Do not remove pills from blister packs until you are ready to take them.
    • Do not pour liquid medicines into jars or other containers.
  • Measure liquid medicine correctly. Use a tool specially made to measure liquid medicine. Examples are oral syringes and marked dosing spoons or cups. These tools can be found at a drugstore. Do not use a kitchen teaspoon or tablespoon. They are not accurate, so you may get too much or too little of the medicine.
  • Store medicine properly. You may need to store medicine in a cool, dark, dry place. You may need to refrigerate it. Proper storage will prevent the medicine from breaking down or going bad before the expiration date.
  • Do not drink alcohol or use drugs. Alcohol and drugs can interact with your medicines. Your risk for falls is higher if you mix alcohol or drugs with certain medicines. Alcohol with prescription pain medicines can make you sleepy and slow your breathing rate. You may stop breathing completely.
  • Do not drive until you know how your medicines affect you. Some medicines may cause you to be drowsy or dizzy.
  • Never share medicines. Do not take any medicines prescribed for another person. Do not give any of your medicines to another person.

What do I need to know about prescription pain medicine safety?

  • Do not suddenly stop taking prescription pain medicine. If you have been taking prescription pain medicine for longer than 2 weeks, a sudden stop may cause dangerous side effects. Ask your healthcare provider for more information before you stop taking your medicine.
  • Take your medicine as directed. Take only the amount prescribed or recommended by your healthcare provider. Too much medicine may cause breathing problems or other health issues. If you use a pain patch, be sure to remove the old patch before you place a new one.
  • Time your medicine correctly. Take your pain medicine 30 minutes before exercise or physical therapy. This helps decrease pain to help meet your treatment goals. You may need to take medicine before you go to bed. This may help you sleep and not be woken by pain.
  • Watch for side effects. Some foods, alcohol, and other medicines may cause side effects when you take pain medicine. Ask your healthcare provider how to prevent these problems.
  • Prevent constipation. Constipation is the most common side effect of prescription pain medicine. Eat foods high in fiber, such as raw fruit, vegetables, beans, and whole-grain bread and cereal. Ask your healthcare provider how much liquid to drink each day and which liquids are best for you. Exercise and activity may also help decrease the risk for constipation.

  • Follow instructions for what to do with medicine you do not use. Your healthcare provider will give you instructions for how to dispose of pain medicine safely. This helps make sure no one else takes the medicine.

What can I do to make sure others have information about my medicines?

  • Keep a list of your medicines. Give the list to anyone who helps care for you, and to all your healthcare providers. Include the medicine amounts, and when and why you take them. Include any vitamins, herbs, or supplements you take. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if a medicine could interact with any other medicine or with food. Do not start or stop any medicine unless your healthcare provider tells you it is okay. Update your list if you start or stop any medicine.
  • Use 1 pharmacy for all your prescriptions. Your pharmacy will keep a list of your medicines. When you get a new prescription, the pharmacist will check that it will not interact with your other medicines. Keep a copy of the list. Your pharmacist can tell you the side effects for each medicine, and how medicines taken together may affect you.

Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) or have someone else call if:

  • You have trouble breathing or you stop breathing.
  • You are unconscious or someone cannot get you to respond.
  • You have a seizure.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You feel excitable and have a rapid heartbeat.
  • You have new or sudden wheezing.
  • You have mouth or throat swelling.
  • Your eyes are sunken, or your eyes and mouth are dry.

When should I call my doctor?

  • You missed a dose of your medicine, or you took too much.
  • You have a rash, or your face or lips look swollen.
  • You have a headache or are dizzy.
  • You are confused or irritable.
  • You are vomiting.
  • You have diarrhea with blood in it.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.