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Older Adults : Using Medications

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Over-the-Counter Remedies for Seniors

Over-the-counter (OTC) remedies are wonderful. You don't need a prescription, and relief is as close as the nearest drugstore. You may already use several OTC remedies.

It's easy to forget that OTC remedies are drugs that can cause side effects and affect other medications. That's why it's important to read the dosage instructions, health risks and warnings on the packaging.

Keep in mind that as an older adult, you may be more sensitive to some drugs or you may be taking prescribed medications that could interact with OTC medicines. If you take OTC remedies often at the highest dosage, you are more likely to have harmful side effects. Here are a few OTC remedies and some of their side effects:

Acetaminophen (Tylenol) may relieve pain and fever, but taking large doses for a long time can lead to kidney damage. The drug is available in many formulations. Taking more than 4,000 milligrams a day can cause liver damage. If you have more than three alcoholic drinks a day, talk with a doctor before using medications that contain acetaminophen. The risk that acetaminophen will harm the liver increases when the drug is combined with alcohol or other drugs that can harm the liver.

If you take warfarin, acetaminophen is better to use for pain relief than aspirin or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, because acetaminophen doesn't cause gastrointestinal bleeding and has no effect on platelets (the anti-clotting cells). The blood-thinning effect of warfarin may be significantly increased after only a few days of using acetaminophen, however, because acetaminophen boosts the level of warfarin in the blood.

Antacids can interact with many drugs and cause problems for people with heart or kidney conditions or high blood pressure. Brands with aluminum may cause constipation or weaken bones. Magnesium-based antacids may cause diarrhea.

Aspirin can interfere with blood clotting and may worsen or trigger asthma. If you take a prescription blood thinner, use aspirin only if your doctor says you can. It can cause heartburn, indigestion, and ulcers, and may worsen asthma in individuals who are sensitive to aspirin.

Cold or allergy remedies often have antihistamines (for sneezing and a runny nose) and/or decongestants (for a stuffy nose). Antihistamines may leave you drowsy and sluggish, making driving dangerous. Light-headedness and blurred vision may occur in older adults, and difficulty urinating may occur in older men. Decongestants can cause nervousness and insomnia and may raise your blood pressure. If you have diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, or an overactive thyroid, use these remedies only with a doctor's permission.

Ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) helps relieve pain. Ask your doctor before using them if you have any kidney or liver problems, stomach problems, heart failure, high blood pressure, or if you take any blood thinners.

Remember to read the label and check with your doctor before taking an OTC remedy. Then you'll be ready to get relief.