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Six Tips for Avoiding Drug Reactions in Elders

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) adverse drug reactions or overmedication result in more than 700,000 hospitalizations a year.  And many of these could be avoided by following advice offered by the American Geriatrics Society.  The AGS’s Foundation for Health in Aging offers advice for all of us who care for older parents or adults in our orbits.  Here is a summary of the six major recommendations.

  1. Ask before taking OTC drugs:  Never assume that just because you can buy a medication in a drug store without a prescription that it will be harmless.  Most of these drugs started out as prescription meds.  Ask the doctor or pharmacist if an OTC drug is a risk by itself or in combination with a prescription your elder may already be taking.
  2. Make/update your List:  A lot of medical offices are very good about asking patients on every visit what medications they are taking and keeping it in their records.  With every visit the provider needs to add new medications so that everyone is aware of what your elder is taking.
  3. Question your provider:  When you or your elder receive a new prescription ask questions about when to take the drug, with or without food, what to do if a dose is missed, is it available in generic form and what are the common side effects?
  4. Read the labels and follow them:  There is a fine print insert of patient instructions that comes with every prescription.  Don’t be intimidated by the scientific jargon; look for the indications and usage section as well as the adverse events sections.  And then take them as directed – don’t add a dose for better effect or stop just because you feel better.
  5. Report any ill effects:  There is a saying in geriatric circles that every symptom in an older adult should be considered a side effect of a drug until proven otherwise.  Especially if there is sudden difficulty breathing or swallowing, light-headedness or irregular heart beat.  If you cannot reach your loved one’s provider call 911.
  6. Review your medications with your provider:  At least once a year you should talk with your elder’s provider about the medications, the doses and any changes you may have noticed.  And do not leave out vitamins, supplements or herbals. 

For more information go to the American Geriatrics Society web site as well as refer to a list of drugs that have known side effects or other issues.  This is called the Beers List .


Charlotte Bishop is a Geriatric Care Manager and founder of Creative Case Management, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends to older adults and their families in metropolitan Chicago. Please email your questions to Charlotte Bishop


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