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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.

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.

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 medications 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:

  • 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.

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.