Over-the-Counter Remedies for Seniors
Over-the-counter (OTC) remedies are great. You don't need a prescription, and relief is as close as the nearest drugstore. You may already use some OTC remedies.
It's easy to forget that OTC remedies are drugs. They can cause side effects and affect how other medications work. 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 in your OTC product. This will help prevent over-dosing yourself.
Keep in mind that as an older adult, you may be more sensitive to some drugs. You may also be taking prescribed medications that could interact with OTC medicines. If you often take OTC remedies 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 relieve pain and fever. But, taking large doses for a long time can lead to kidney damage. The drug is available in many forms. 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. Taking acetaminophen with alcohol or other drugs that can harm the liver increases the risk for liver damage.
Antacids can interact with many drugs. They can also cause problems for people with heart or kidney problems 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, only use aspirin if your doctor says it’s OK. Aspirin can cause heartburn, indigestion, and ulcers. It may also worsen asthma in people who are sensitive to aspirin.
Cold or allergy remedies often contain 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. This can make driving dangerous. Light-headedness and blurred vision may occur in older adults. Men may have trouble urinating.
Decongestants, such as pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine, can cause nervousness and insomnia. They may also 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 OK.
Expectorants, such as guaifenesin, are used for thinning of sputum and secretions. They 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.
- Gomez, Wanda, RN, Ph.D.
- Holloway, Beth, RN, M.Ed.
- MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician