Be your own advocate for medication safety.

Take, store and dispose of medications safely.

Know when medications can cause harm.

Learn about common and alternative ways to treat pain.


Medication Safety for Older Adults

One in three Americans who use prescription medications is an older adult. Older adults also account for three out of 10 adults who use non-prescription (or over-the-counter) medications. Older adults are also more likely to take multiple medications prescribed by several health care providers. This puts older adults at increased risk for reactions, such as falls, depression, confusion and malnutrition. Further, research has shown that three out of five older adults take their prescriptions improperly, including skipping doses, not filling prescriptions and not following the prescriber's directions.

For these reasons, and more, medication safety becomes increasingly important as we age. Older Ohioans should be active participants in their health care, along with their health care providers, pharmacists and family members or other caregivers. Doing so can help you or your loved ones be healthier and more active.

Keep a list of your medications

Maintain an updated, complete list of medications you take, including prescription and non-prescription (over-the-counter) medicines, natural and herbal remedies, as well as any vitamins or supplements. Include:

  • What you take: The medicine’s generic and brand names (if known)
  • Why you take it: The symptoms or conditions the medication is intended to treat
  • How much you take: The prescribed dosage, usually in milligrams (mg) and
  • How often you take it: The frequency with which you take it (e.g., once daily, three times a day)
  • When you take it: The time of day you take the medication (e.g., at bedtime, with dinner)
  • Who told you to take it and when: The name of the doctor or other health care professional who prescribed the medication and when you started taking it, or the last time the dosage or frequency was changed (increased or decreased).

Carry a list of the medications you take with you in your purse or wallet, or store it on your mobile phone. Bring it with you to every doctor appointment, as well as to the pharmacy when you pick up your prescriptions. Share your list with a trusted loved one or friend, in case of emergency.

Tip sheet: Keep a list of your medications

Be your own health advocate

You are the most important part of your healthcare team. Take the time to become familiar with the medications you take. Ask questions and be sure you understand what each medication does and how it can affect you.

  • You are the most important member of your health care team. Take charge of your medications.If you see more than one health care provider who is prescribing medication for you, tell each one about all the medicines and supplements you take – don’t assume they know.
  • Be alert to new symptoms or health issues and contact your health care professional or pharmacist if you feel they could be due to a new medication or a change in dose or frequency.
  • If you have trouble hearing or understanding your health care provider, bring a trusted friend or family member with you to appointments to take notes, or ask the provider if it would be okay for you to record your conversation with a tape recorder or cell phone.
  • If possible, fill all your prescriptions at a single pharmacy; doing so allows the pharmacist to better identify potential interactions.
  • Go over your full list of medications with your doctor at each visit, but at least once a year. Confirm that all the medications you are taking are still necessary and determine which (if any) you can stop taking.
  • If you’ve been taking a medication (prescription or non-prescription) for a long time, ask your health care professional if it is still appropriate for you. The way your body processes medications changes with age.

Tip sheet: Be your own advocate

Questions to ask your doctor or pharmacist

When your health care professional is prescribing a new medication or changing your dosage, silence is not golden. Make sure you fully understand why the doctor is prescribing it, how to take it properly and how it might affect you.

Questions to ask include:

  • Take charge of your medicines by asking questions. PURPOSE: What is this medicine supposed to do? How will I know if it’s working? Will I need regular tests to monitor my treatment?
  • OPTIONS: Can this medicine replace another medicine I am taking? Is there another way to treat this condition or symptom without medication?
  • DURATION: How long will I take this medicine? Can I stop once I feel better?
  • SIDE EFFECTS: What symptoms or side effects can I expect with this medicine? Which ones should I be the most concerned about?
  • ACCIDENTS: What will happen if I miss a dose or accidentally take too much of this medicine?
  • REACTIONS: Can this medicine react with food or drink, over-the-counter medicines, other prescriptions or herbal or vitamin supplements?
  • ADDICTION: Can I become addicted to this medicine? Should I be concerned about others having access to this medicine?
  • OWNERSHIP: Are there any legal or safety issues I should consider about buying and owning this medication?
  • DIRECTIONS: What does it mean to take this medication... On an empty stomach? With food or meals? With plenty of water? Two/three/four times a day? “As needed”?

Tip sheet: Questions to ask your doctor or pharmacist

Take, store and dispose of medications safely

Owning and taking medications comes with the responsibility to use the medicine as intended and prevent others from intentionally or unintentionally being exposed to it. This includes all types of medications, such as pills, capsules, gels, chewables, liquids, creams, eye or ear drops, nasal sprays, inhalers, vitamins and dietary supplements.

Take your medications safely

According to researchers, about three out of every five older adults take their prescriptions improperly. Approximately 140,000 older Americans die each year as a result of taking medications improperly. Listen closely when your health care professional prescribes a medication for you, and always follow your doctor's directions when taking your medicine.

  • About three out of five older adults take their medications incorrectly.Ask your doctor or pharmacist about directions you aren’t sure about, such as “take with food,” “on an empty stomach,” “once/twice/three times/four times daily,” and “as needed.”
  • When you receive your prescription medications, check the label to make sure that the drug name, dosage and directions are the same as what your doctor told you.
  • Do not take prescription medications that were not prescribed for you by one of your health care providers.
  • Do not share your prescription medicines or take someone else’s medications; different people can react differently to the same drug. In some cases, sharing your medication may be against the law.
  • If you think you are experiencing side effects from a medication (particularly after starting the medicine or increasing the dose), talk to your doctor or pharmacist immediately.
  • Don’t stop taking your prescription medication, skip doses or otherwise change the amount of the medicine you take without talking to your health care provider (even if you feel better or think the medication isn’t working).
  • If you cannot afford your prescribed medications, ask your health care provider or pharmacist if there is a less expensive alternative.
  • If you cannot read your medication label or have trouble opening the container it is in, ask your pharmacist about alternative labels and packaging.
  • Read the information that your pharmacist includes with your medicine. If you don’t understand something, ask your doctor or pharmacist to explain.
  • If you have trouble sticking to your medication schedule, ask your doctor or pharmacist about ideas and products to help, such as linking medicines with daily routines, using a pill organizer, computer or smart phone reminders and more.

Tip sheet: Take your medications safely

Store your medications safely

Fact: Most people who misuse prescription drugs get them from family or friends. It is your responsibility to protect your medications from theft and misuse by others. In addition, some medicines can become less effective or take on unwanted effects if not stored correctly.

  • Store your medications safelyStore medications in cool, dry and secure locations, such as lockboxes, medication safes, lockable drawers or other lockable spaces away from heat, moisture or humidity. Heat, air, light and moisture may damage your medications or make it less potent. (The medicine cabinet in your bathroom is one of the worst places to store your medicines.)
  • Avoid storage places that children or others can easily access, such as drawers, nightstands or kitchen counters or cabinets - even if you rarely have visitors or children in your home.
  • Keep your medications in their original containers. If you use pill organizers to manage your medications, put only the medicines you need for a reasonable time in the organizers and keep the rest in the original containers.
  • Do not store other items in your medication containers. This includes the cotton packing that comes with many new bottles of medicine; remove and discard it upon opening for the first time.
  • Dispose of unused or expired medications promptly and properly.
  • Review your full list of medications with your pharmacist and ask if any of them have specific storage instructions.

Tip sheet: Store your medications safely

Dispose of your medications safely

Keeping medications past their usefulness can be dangerous for a number of reasons. Some medications can become more or less potent over time, and can also develop undesired side effects. Also, keeping medications in your home that you do not need increases the risk for accidental (or intentional) misuse. Medications that you will no longer take or that have passed the expiration date on their label should be disposed of properly and promptly.

The State of Ohio Board of Pharmacy lists various drug disposal resources, including tools to find a drug disposal site near you.

  • Tell your pharmacist the name of the medications that you wish to dispose of and ask about the most appropriate means of disposal.
  • Follow any specific disposal instructions on the package or Drug Facts labels of non-prescription medications.
  • Do not flush any medications down the sink or toilet unless the package or your doctor or pharmacist specifically instructs you to do so.
  • For medications that can be disposed of in the regular trash, mix the medicine with an undesirable substance, such as kitty litter or used coffee grounds, then place into a sealable bag, bottle or container to reduce the risk of other people or animals consuming them. Do not crush tablets or capsules that will be disposed of in the regular trash.
  • For medications that cannot be thrown in the regular trash, check with local pharmacies, law enforcement agencies or trash and recycling providers about medication disposal guidelines and options (e.g., drop box sites or Drug Take Back Day activities) in your community.
  • Remove and destroy prescription labels, or scratch out identifying information on the label to make it unreadable.

Tip sheet: Dispose of your medications safely

When medications can cause harm

While medications are generally intended to make us feel better by treating disease or managing symptoms, they can be harmful in some situations. As we age, our bodies change and can respond to medications differently than when we were younger, making older adults more vulnerable to overdose and side effects. Many older Ohioans take three or more medications, which increases the potential for errors, misuse, interactions and side effects. Further, age-related conditions and situations can make it harder for older adult to take their medicines exactly as prescribed. Examples include memory loss, issues with attention, poor eyesight, problems swallowing and more.

Side effects and interactions

While medications are typically designed to provide the same benefit for all users, physical changes as we age can cause a drug to work differently or cause unintended side effects. Some medicines that work well for most adults 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:

  • Some medications that work well for most adults may not be recommended for older adults.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, cold 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 health care provider about the Beers List and whether any of the medications you take are on it.

Some medications can cause side effects similar to health problems that occur in older adults (such as memory difficulties), so ask your healthcare provider if any new health problems you are experiencing could be due to medications.

Drug interactions happen when two or more medications react with each other to cause unwanted effects or make either medicine’s effects more or less potent. Interactions can occur when:

  • One medication affects how another one works;
  • 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.

Tip sheet: Side effects and interactions

Non-prescription does not equal safe

Prescription medications are not the only drugs that can harm you. Many older adults are hospitalized because of problems related to non-prescription (or over-the-counter) pills, liquids, medicated creams, lotions and other formulations. Non-prescription medications often contain the same or similar ingredients as many prescription drugs. In fact, most non-prescription medicines required a prescription to purchase at one time in the past. Non-prescription medicines should be treated with the same care and respect as prescription medications.

What are non-prescription medications?

Non-prescription, or over-the-counter (OTC), medications are medicines that are sold directly to the consumer and do not require a prescription from a health care provider. Some can be purchased from the retail floor, while others may require the buyer to ask for assistance at the pharmacy counter. The Federal Trade Commission requires all non-prescription medications to be labeled with an approved Drug Facts label to educate consumers.

  • Tell your health care provider about all the prescription and non-prescription medicines you take. Since many non-prescription medications contain the same ingredients or have the same effects as prescription medications you are taking, taking them together can amplify these effects and cause problems.
  • Read the Drug Facts label on non-prescription packaging and follow the instructions exactly. If you’ve been taking non-prescription medications (including common pain and allergy remedies) for a long time, read the label to make sure you are still taking them according to manufacturer’s recommendations.
  • Certain medical conditions (such as high blood pressure or asthma) can make some common non-prescription medications unsafe for you to take. If your health care professional diagnoses you with a new condition, ask if any of the non-prescription medications you take could be a problem.
  • Pick non-prescription medications that treat only the symptoms you have and contain only the ingredients you need. Avoid multi-symptom remedies unless otherwise directed by your health care professional or pharmacist.
  • Non-prescription medications are usually intended for short-term use. If your symptoms don’t go away within a reasonable time, or worsen, talk to your health care provider.

Tip sheet: Non-prescription does not equal safe

Misuse, abuse, and addiction

For a variety of reasons, older adults may be more likely to misuse some medications. Body changes as we age can change how we process medications and put us at higher risk for addiction. Further, issues with vision, hearing and brain function can affect our ability to hear and understand directions from our health care providers. Misuse sometimes can lead to drug abuse or addiction.

Medication misuse includes:

  • Taking more or less of a prescription medication than prescribed;
  • Taking a prescription medication for a reason different than what is was prescribed for; or
  • Sharing or taking someone else’s prescription medication (with or without their permission).

Signs of abuse or addiction include:

For information about addiction services and referral to community supports, call the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services' toll free Bridge Line at 1-877-275-6364.
  • Changes in expected emotional response and rapid mood swings;
  • Dramatic changes in sleep patterns;
  • Unexplained missing personal items and money;
  • Frequent doctor visits;
  • Sudden dramatic weight loss;
  • Constipation without reasonable explanation;
  • Small or pinpoint pupils;
  • Smoking or frequent abuse of alcohol;
  • Aggressive behavior to obtain prescriptions;
  • Sharing medications;
  • Increasing dose without discussing with a health care provider; and
  • Personal or family history of substance abuse.

If you feel that you or a loved one is at risk of medication misuse, may already be misusing medications or exhibits signs of addiction, talk to your health care provider immediately.

Fact sheet: Misuse, abuse and addiction

Protecting our children and grandchildren

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (National Institutes of Health), young adults and teens are the biggest abusers of prescription pain relievers, ADHD medications and anti-anxiety drugs. One in four teens will misuse or abuse a prescription drug at least once in their lifetime. Most people who misuse prescription drugs, including teens and young adults, get them from family or friends, sometimes with their knowledge, but often without it. More than 40 percent of teens who misuse prescription drugs get them from their parents’ medicine cabinets. Keeping your prescription medications out of site and out of reach will help prevent the children in your life from having access to medications that could harm them if not used properly.

In addition to preventing access to medications, it’s important to talk to the young people in your life about the dangers of prescription drug misuse, abuse and addiction. Studies have shown that children whose families talk to them about drug abuse are 50 percent less likely to misuse them. Learn how to have this crucial conversation with the young people in your life with resources from Start Talking! Ohio and Don’t Live in Denial, OH.

Tip sheet: Protecting our children and grandchildren

Medications and falls

Certain medications can have side effects that include dizziness, drowsiness, numbness, dehydration, lack of balance, vision impairment and more. These symptoms and others can increase your risk of falling.

  • Certain medications can have side effects that increase older adults' risk for falling.Discuss your medicines and your concerns about falling with your doctor at every visit or at least once a year. Ask about a falls risk assessment.
  • Read the prescription label and Drug Facts materials; look for warnings about drowsiness, dizziness, muscle pain or weakness, joint pain, lack of balance, or driving or operating machinery while taking.
  • Work with your doctor to decrease the dose, stop the medication, or switch it to a better alternative. Do not stop a medication without talking to your doctor.
  • Whenever your health care provider gives you a new prescription, ask if the new medication(s) could increase your risk of falling.
  • Ask your health care professional about alternative treatments that will treat your symptoms or condition without increasing your risk of falling.

Learn more about medications and falls from STEADY U Ohio.

Tip sheet: Medications and falls

Pain management

According to the 2018 Ohio Health Issues Poll, about 3 out of 10 Ohioans have been prescribed a pain reliever in the past five years. People who rate their health as fair or poor are 18% more likely to be prescribed pain releivers than those who rate their health as good or excellent. One in 10 Ohioans who have been prescribed pain relievers say their prescriber gave them more medicine than they needed.

Treating pain in older adults can present significant challenges. When an older adult has a number of chronic conditions, some may affect which drugs they can use, while others may require medications that may put these people at a higher risk for drug interactions.

What are opioids?

Opioids are a group of drugs generally used to relieve severe, acute, temporary pain. They are powerful drugs and are commonly prescribed following surgeries and to treat conditions with high levels of pain. They can have mild side effects, such as sleepiness, or more serious side effects, such as slowed breathing and heartrate. They also can be highly addictive because of the relaxed feeling, or "high" they produce. Overdose, brain damage and death are serious concerns with this class of drugs, as are serious withdrawal symptoms after stopping the medication.

Are you at risk?

Certain people have personal factors that place them at higher risk of addiction to opioid medications. Find our your risk level with the Opioid Risk Quiz from Take Charge Ohio.

Common names of opioid medications include Vicodin, Percocet and oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine and codeine.

Although opioids are not appropriate to treat long-term, chronic pain, your health care professional may prescribe them when non-prescription remedies (e.g., aspirin, Tylenol, Advil) aren't effective or no longer relieve your pain. These medicines come with serious risks for you to consider, including:

  • Potential psychological dependence or addiction;
  • Unintentional overdose;
  • Serious side effects, such as sedation, nausea or vomiting; and
  • Other individuals stealing or accessing your prescribed medications without permission.

To reduce these risks, follow your doctor's instructions carefully and take the medication exactly as prescribed. Make sure your health care provider knows about other medications and supplements you are taking when he or she prescribes an opiate for you.

Tip sheet: What are opioids?

Alternatives to medications for treating chronic pain

Pain is complex, which is a good thing because this means there are a variety of ways to treat it, with and without medication, depending on the cause and type of the pain. No single technique can be guaranteed to relieve pain, so a combination of approaches is generally recommended. Talk to your health care provider about your pain management options and which ones might be right for you.

Alternatives to medications for treating chronic pain include:

  • Talk to your health care providers about alternatives to Medications for treating chronic painPrescription and non-prescription medications;
  • Trigger point injections;
  • Surgical implants;
  • Electrical stimulation;
  • Bioelectric therapy;
  • Physical therapy;
  • Exercise;
  • Psychological treatment;
  • Mind-body therapies (relaxtion techniques, meditation, guided imagery, biofeedback and hypnosis);
  • Accupuncture;
  • Chiropractic treatment and massage;
  • Nutrtitional supplements and herbal remedies; and
  • Special diets.

Tip sheet: Alternatives to medications for chronic pain

Chronic pain self-management workshops

HEALTHY U Ohio: Chronic Pain Self-ManagementThe Ohio Department of Aging, through Ohio's area agencies on aging, offers Chronic Pain Self-Management workshops around the state. These free or low-cost programs are six week, community-based workshops that can help you learn proven strategies to manage chronic pain and health conditions and to feel healthier. It is an evidence-based program designed to teach you to set your own goals and make step-by-step plans to improve your health.

Chronic Pain Self-Management workshops use trained leaders to teach you how to manage your pain. Topics include:

  • Setting and achieving personal goals;
  • Strategies to deal with pain, stress, fatigue and depression;
  • Using physical activity to maintain and improve strength, flexibility and endurance;
  • How to use medications safely and appropriately;
  • Better ways to talk with your doctor; and
  • Better ways to talk with your doctor and your family about your pain.

Chronic Pain Self-Management workshops are for you if you have long-term pain or care for someone living with chronic pain, are looking for better ways to manage pain symptoms, feel limited in your daily activities or feel tired, alone, or fearful because of your health or the health of your loved one.

Workshops can help you:

  • Deal with stress, frustration, fatigue, pain and depression;
  • Use physical activity to maintain and improve strength, flexibility and endurance;
  • Use medications safely and appropriately;
  • Talk with your doctor and your family about your health;
  • Use good nutrition to improve health and control symptoms;
  • Evaluate new treatments; and
  • Set and achieve personal health goals.

Find a workshop starting soon near you with our Health & Wellness Calendar.

Find Services Where You Live


Recovery Ohio
Access resources to help with recovery and end the stigma of substance abuse.

Medication Safety for Older Adults Toolkit
Download all the topics on this webpage as printable tip sheets.
Safe medication practices for life.

Take Charge Ohio
Talk to your doctor about pain management.

Don't Live in Denial, OH
Protect the next generation from opioid abuse.

Start Talking!
Talk to your children and grandchildren about drug abuse.

Safe Use of Medicines for Older Adults (National Institute on Aging)

Managing Medicines for a Person with Alzheimer’s (National Institute on Aging)

MedlinePlus: Drug Information (U.S. National Library of Medicine)

If Opioids Have Not Relieved Your Chronic Pain (Ohio BWC)

Is My Pain Medication Making Me Worse? (Ohio BWC)

Take Charge of Pain Medication Safety (Take Charge Ohio)


Older Adults and the Flu

Older adults are at increased risk for complications from the flu. Flu is highly contagious and is spread by coughing and contact. Symptoms include fever, cough, aches and tiredness. The best way to avoid getting the flu is by getting a flu shot. Ask about special high-dose vaccines specifically for older adults.

For more information, visit:


Start Talking! to your grandchildren about drug abuse.
Take Charge, Ohio! Manage pain and prevent medication abuse.

Ohio's Best Rx - Prescription Drug Savings for Golden Buckeye Cardholders

If you cannot afford your prescription medications, the Ohio's Best Rx prescription drug discount program may be able to help. Ohio's Best Rx offers deep discounts on most name-brand and generic medications at nearly every Ohio pharmacy for Ohioans who lack prescription drug insurance, have coverage limits or have a prescription that isn't covered by your insurance. The Ohio's Best Rx program is included on the Golden Buckeye Card, but is available to all Ohioans regardless of age. Call toll-free 1-866-923-7879 or visit for more information.


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.