Health Encyclopedia

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.

Many OTC products contain several different types of medications. For example, you may find combinations of acetaminophen, cough medicine, and decongestant for colds. Be sure to read the active ingredients listed on the box to know exactly which medications are contained in your OTC product. 

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 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 liver disease or have more than 3 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 like ibuprofen or naproxen because acetaminophen doesn't cause stomach bleeding or ulcers. It also has no effect on blood thinning. But the blood-thinning effect of warfarin can sometimes significantly increase after only a few days of using acetaminophen, because acetaminophen boosts the level of warfarin in the blood. If you start taking acetaminophen while on warfarin, you should talk with your doctor about decreasing the acetaminophen dose or having your warfarin levels monitored more frequently. 

  • 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 can often have several medications, including antihistamines, decongestants, cough suppressants, and expectorants. Read the label to find the active ingredients, not just the product's descriptive marketing name. For example, Tylenol PM contains both acetaminophen and the antihistamine medication diphenhydramine. People taking this drug can have all the side effects of an antihistamine and of acetaminophen.

  • If you are taking more than 1 OTC medicine, be sure to review their active ingredients so that you don't accidentally overdose by taking more than 1 medicine in the same class of drug. 

  • Antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine or chlorpheniramine, 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, such as pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine, 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.

  • Expectorants, such as guaifenesin for thinning of sputum and secretions, can cause some mild side effects, including dizziness and headache.

  • Cough medicines, such as dextromethorphan, can cause drowsiness, blurry vision, and lightheadedness.

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs include ibuprofen and naproxen. They help 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.