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When Medications Can Cause Harm

An older man holds his hand to his face in a gesture of discomfort while he speaks to a young woman who is making notes on a clipboard.

Medications are generally intended to make us feel better. They are powerful tools for treating disease or managing symptoms. But, they can hurt you in some situations. 

Disclaimer: The information on this page is not intended as a substitute for medical advice or instruction from a health care professional. Always take medication as prescribed or according to manufacturer's instructions. Consult with your doctor, pharmacist or other health care provider before changing your medication habits.

Our Bodies Change

How we feel, how we process food, and even how we move - all these things and more can change as we get older. How our bodies use and react to medications can also change over time. These changes can not only make the medications more or less effective at what they are intended to do, but they can also increase your risk for medication errors, misuse, and side effects. As a result, medications that you have safely taken for years could become harmful the longer you take them.

Other age-related changes can affect your ability to take your medications exactly as your health care providers intended. Examples of these changes include memory loss, issues with attention, poor eyesight, problems swallowing, and more.

Further, some medications can cause side effects similar to health problems that occur in older adults (such as memory difficulties). This can make it difficult to determine the true cause of some symptoms.

Keep a list of the medications you take (including non-prescription medications) and discuss your list with your primary doctor, pharmacist, or other health care provider at least once each year. Ask if each medication is still right for you given your age and overall physical condition. Ask about any potential drug interactions - especially if you take medications that were prescribed by different doctors. Also, ask if any new health problems or symptoms you are experiencing could be due to medications.

More questions to ask your doctor and other health care providers.

Medications Not Recommended for Older Adults

Some medications that work well for most people may not be recommended for older adults. The American Geriatrics Society's Health in Aging Foundation advises older adults to be careful with certain types of medications, including:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) used to treat pain and inflammation;
  • Specific medicines used to treat heart failure and irregular heartbeat;
  • Some diabetes drugs;
  • Muscle relaxants;
  • Certain medications used to treat anxiety or insomnia;
  • Certain anticholinergic drugs;
  • Certain non-prescription remedies for coughs, colds, and allergies; and
  • Antipsychotics.

These potentially harmful medications are included in a widely used tool for health care professionals called the "Beers List," named for the physician who created it. Ask your primary doctor, pharmacist, or other health care provider about the Beers List and whether any of the medications you take are on it.

Drug Interactions

Many older Ohioans take three or more medications, which increases the potential for errors, misuse, interactions and side effects. Drug interactions happen when two or more medications or other substances react with each other. This reaction can cause one or all of the substances to have a different effect on you than what was intended. Interactions occur when:

  • One medication affects how other medications work;
  • A medical condition you have makes a certain medication potentially harmful;
  • An herbal preparation or supplement affects the action of a medication;
  • An over-the-counter remedy affects the action of a medication;
  • A food or non-alcoholic drink reacts with a medication; or
  • An alcoholic drink interacts with a medication.

At least once a year, but also any time you receive a new prescription, ask your primary doctor, pharmacist, or other health care provider whether you are at risk of harmful drug interactions. Take a list of your medications to all your medical appointments and procedures.

Counterfeit Medications

More Americans are buying prescription medications online to save money. But it's important to know that your medications are coming from a trustworthy source. The U.S. Department of Justice's Drug Enforcement Administration warns that criminals here and in other countries are flooding the U.S. potentially deadly counterfeit medications. These fake pills may not contain the amount of the intended medication you need. They can also include other, potentially dangerous and addictive drugs, such as fentanyl and methamphetamine.

Some of the most common fake pills look like common prescription medication, including opioid medications to control pain or. These fake pills are often sold online and on social media, making them very tempting to anyone with internet access. The DEA advises consumers to only buy medications that are prescribed by a medical professional and dispensed by licensed pharmacists.

If you have cannot afford your medications, talk to your insurance provider or primary doctor, pharmacist, or other health care provider about patient assistance programs and alternative treatments. 

One Pill Can Kill - U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration