Medicines can be critical for treating and preventing diseases. Yet sometimes medicines cause side effects and actually make a person feel worse. Side effects are more common as people age, so it's important to understand how to identify and prevent side effects.
In older people, it may be difficult to distinguish between side effects and symptoms of disease, especially for those with several different diseases. A person feeling dizzy, for example, may think it is a symptom of his or her heart disease, rather than a side effect from a new medication.
Common side effects from medicines are dizziness, fatigue, dry mouth, constipation and headache, and in older men, difficulty urinating. Because some side effects, such as difficulties with balance or memory are vague, people may attribute them to "just getting older."
More side effects
Side effects are more common in older people because many have several chronic diseases or conditions and, therefore, are often taking several medicines. The more medicines a person is taking, the more likely it is that he or she may experience side effects. There is also a greater chance that medicines can interact with each other.
Changes in the body that occur with age can affect how medicines are removed from the body. When medicine is swallowed, it is absorbed through the wall of the stomach or intestines and goes into the bloodstream. After the blood carries the medicine to the tissues, the medicine is eventually removed from the body by the kidneys and liver.
As people get older, the kidneys and liver do not remove drugs as efficiently. Therefore, drug levels in the bloodstream may become too high and cause side effects. Health care providers can use lower doses of medication to prevent drug levels from becoming too high. Certain diseases can also affect how drugs are handled in the body. For example, high blood pressure and diabetes can damage the kidneys, resulting in slower removal of a drug. And some drugs can reduce the ability of the kidneys or liver to remove drugs.
Many older people also take nonprescription medications, including herbal and natural remedies. Although these can be useful for treating mild symptoms, they can also have some negative side effects. Pain medicines, such as ibuprofen, can affect the kidneys and may cause bleeding stomach ulcers. Ginko biloba and ginseng, both herbal remedies, can interfere with the action of warfarin (a medication to treat blood clots) and cause excessive bleeding. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about using over-the-counter medicines or any herbal or natural remedies. Your pharmacist and doctor can keep a record of these drugs and make sure they are not interacting with any other medicines.
Using medicines safely
The FDA offers these tips for older adults:
Know the common side effects of all of your medicines.
Contact your pharmacist or doctor if you think you are experiencing a side effect. Remember that any new changes in your health may be a drug side effect.
Keep a complete list of your medicines, including nonprescription medicines. Share this list with your health care provider.
Throw out medicines that have expired.
Do not share medicines with other people. The dose and the medicine were chosen specifically for you and may not be right for other people.
Fill all your prescriptions at the same pharmacy. Your pharmacist can then keep track of the medicines you use and be aware of any possible problems with interactions.
- Russell, Nikki, RN, BSN
- Stock, Christopher J., PharmD, BCPP