Medication Safety for Seniors: Habits for safe use.

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This article discusses medication safety for seniors.  It provides tips to develop habits for safe use.

Seniors can easily adopt habits for safe use of medications. 

Seniors are the heaviest users of prescription medicines in Canada. 

Medication safety is defined as “freedom from preventable harm with medication use.”

The professional team (physicians, pharmacists, nurse practitioners) are responsible for accurate diagnosis and treatment and dispensing the correct medications.  You (your parents) are a valuable member of the team and your actions can either increase or decrease medication safety.

The majority of seniors take prescription or over-the-counter medications. Pain relievers are the most frequently taken, followed by drugs for high blood pressure, heart medications, stomach remedies, diuretics (water pills) and cough or cold medication.

The use of medications is a double-edged sword! When used appropriately, drugs can relieve symptoms and benefit older adults by improving the quality of daily life and extending lfie. However, with each medication used the risk of side effects or adverse reactions increases.

Benefits and Risks of Medication Use

The older body does not metabolize and eliminate drugs as effectively as a younger one. Some drugs stay in the body longer and, with repeated use, can cause drowsiness or dizziness that can result in falls. Adverse drug reactions may be difficult to detect because symptoms such as confusion, dizziness, fatigue or constipation are easily mistaken for other medical conditions. Because elderly people may have several diseases, they may use many medications—a situation called polypharmacy. This puts them at risk for harmful reactions to drugs. Interactions between drugs, or between food and drugs, can cause problems.

Habits for safe use of medications

Drugs can reduce problem symptoms and improve the senior’s daily life. These same drugs can cause serious problems.
Seniors can adopt the following habits for safe use of medications:

  • Use medications only when necessary.
  • Do not take medications without a doctor’s order.
  • Consult with pharmacist before taking an over-the-counter (non-prescription) medication
  • Consult with your health professional (physician, nurse practitioner, pharmacist) before using alcohol with your medications.
  • Ask the pharmacist about interactions with other medications whenever you add a new drug.
  • Ask the pharmacist to package the medications in a blister pack or a dosette. These are containers in which the pills are placed in sections that clearly identify the dosage times.
  • Contact the pharmacist if the pills do not look the same as those in the previous package. Remember you are the last line of medication safety.
  • Read the label instructions carefully. For example, can you take the drug with food? Can you crush it if you have trouble swallowing it? Some drugs are made to slowly dissolve. Crushing the tablets will alter this quality.
  • Follow the recommended dosage schedule. Sometimes, when people forget a dose, they think that they should double the next dose. This could cause serious side effects.
  • Store medications in a cool, dry place, not the bathroom cupboard. Choose a cupboard in the kitchen, where the lighting is good to read the label, and grandchildren cannot reach the bottles.
  • Watch the expiry date. Some drugs become unsafe once expired.
Help your parent with safe use of medications.

Here are some things you could do with or for your parent:

  • Write out a medication schedule for your parent to check.
  • Make a list of the medications for yourself. You will need this list if your parent is admitted to hospital. Better yet, with your parent’s permission, ask the pharmacist to provide a list whenever medications are changed.
  • Make a note of all drug allergies.  Encourage your parent to use a MedicAlertÒbracelet or keep a wallet card noting the allergy.
  • Download the poster: Five Questions to Ask About Your Medications and discuss with your parent.

Over-the-counter Drug Labels

Thousands of Canadians use over-the-counter (OTC) or non-prescription medications every day. You should use these drugs with care; they are not risk-free. Although it is advisable to consult the pharmacist before choosing an OTC, many people do not.  Think about this fact: as little as 30 years ago, the majority of OTC drugs were available only by prescription.  Therefore, it is important to read the drug label carefully and to understand the instructions and cautions.  Here’s what to look for on the label of any OTC.

The active (or medicinal) ingredient

This is the substance that makes the product work. It is the chemical compound that brings relief to your symptoms, for example, to relieve a headache. Some medicines have more than one active ingredient. Medicines with different names may contain the same medicinal ingredient—so be careful before combining two medications. You may end up taking too much of an active ingredient.

The purpose and uses of the medication

Purpose refers to the type of medicine, such as an antacid for stomach upset or antihistamine for allergies. The use, sometimes called the “indication,” tells you the symptoms or illnesses the product treats. This helps you to know if the medicine is right for your condition.

The warnings or cautions
This information warns you about:

  • side effects
  • when to avoid using this specific medicine; for example, if you have a certain medical condition
  • any other medications or foods to avoid

Follow the directions carefully
The directions will tell you how and when to take a dose of the medicine. The directions include:
how much to take at one time,
how often to take a dose, and
the maximum amount you can take in one day.

The non-medicinal or inactive ingredients

An inactive ingredient is a chemical compound in the medicine that has no intended effect on your body. Flavors or colours can be important if you, or someone you are giving the medicine to, is allergic to that substance. 

Read other information
The label may also include an expiry date and instructions on how to store the product.

Natural Health Products

Natural health products (NHPs) are naturally occurring substances that are used to restore or maintain good health. They are often made from plants, but can also be made from animals, microorganisms and marine sources. They come in a wide variety of forms, such as tablets, capsules, tinctures, solutions, creams, ointments and drops.

In Canada, the Natural Health Product Directorate (NHPD) regulates natural health products such as vitamins, herbal remedies and homeopathic medicines. The goal of the NHPD is to “ensure that Canadians have ready access to natural health products that are safe, effective and of high quality while respecting freedom of choice and philosophical and cultural diversity.

People sometimes confuse “natural” with “safe.” Just because a product is natural does not mean that it is safe for anyone to take. Both bacteria and fungi are natural, but can cause illnesses or even be lethal if eaten.

Willow bark, a product that is sold as a painkiller, is the original source for aspirin. Willow bark can also cause stomach pain, and when too much is taken, it can even cause stomach bleeding. Echinacea, purple cornflower, is used in many remedies to help boost the immune system. If high doses are taken, however, it can cause nausea and dizziness.

Two Actions to Increase Safe Use of Medications
Bottles of pills prescriptions over-the-counter and herbal products. Label Take All medications to doctor. Ask. Do I still need this drug? Do I need this dosage?
Ask your doctor
Pills bottles over the counter prescription herbal products. Label Take all medications. Ask pharmacist. Do any of these interact?
Ask your pharmacist

If you want more information on steps to support your parent with medication safety, download the full article. Medication Safety
You will find references and additional resources.

Use the Checklist for Medication Safety to look at habits to adopt when using any medications (prescription or OTC.)

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