FDA Reminds Older Adults to Be Careful with Medications

Mahshid Moghei, PhD Medically reviewed by Mahshid M. on | Written by Philip Lindeman MD-PhD

Cheerful active senior couple jogging

In February 2024, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reminded older adults about safety when taking prescription medications. I am pleased that the FDA issues these reminders, but I wish they had reminded older adults that they also need to be careful with over-the-counter (OTC) medications. When I counsel patients in the office, I remind them that drugs are still potentially dangerous, even when they are available without a prescription. The following is a summary of the FDA’s advice, adding reminders about OTC medications.

Take All Medications as Prescribed or as Written on the Label

Taking medications as prescribed and consulting with your healthcare professional is paramount for managing your health effectively. Your healthcare provider understands your medical history, current condition, and potential interactions with other medications (including OTC) you may be taking. Their expertise allows them to tailor a treatment plan that aligns with your needs, ensuring the best possible outcome. By adhering to their guidance, you optimize the effectiveness of the medication and minimize the risk of adverse effects or complications.

Deviation from prescribed medication regimens can lead to suboptimal results or even exacerbate health issues. Skipping doses, altering dosage levels, or discontinuing medication without consulting your healthcare provider can disrupt the intended treatment trajectory. Self-medicating or relying on advice from non-professionals can pose serious risks, as it may overlook important factors such as drug interactions, contraindications, or underlying health conditions. Your healthcare professional is a crucial ally in navigating these complexities, offering personalized support to ensure your medication regimen is safe and effective.

Open communication with your healthcare provider is critical to successful medication management. Be proactive in discussing any concerns, side effects, or changes in your condition. Your provider can offer insights, adjustments, or alternative treatments to optimize your health outcomes. Furthermore, maintaining a comprehensive record of your medications, including dosages and schedules, facilitates informed discussions and promotes medication adherence. Remember, your health is a collaborative effort between you and your healthcare team, and by following their guidance, you empower yourself to take control of your well-being and achieve the best possible quality of life.

Store All Medications Safely and Check the Expiration Date

Properly storing medications and regularly checking their expiration dates are critical for maintaining their efficacy and ensuring your safety. Medications, whether OTC or prescribed, can lose their potency or even become harmful if not stored correctly or used past their expiration dates. Storing medications in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight and moisture is essential to preserve their effectiveness. Exposure to heat, humidity, and light can degrade the active ingredients in medicines, rendering them less potent or ineffective. Likewise, storing medications in bathroom cabinets, where temperature and humidity fluctuations are common, should be avoided.

Checking the expiration date on medication packaging is essential for maintaining safety and efficacy. Expired medications may not only lose their effectiveness but can also undergo chemical changes that make them potentially harmful or toxic. It is crucial to regularly inspect the expiration dates of medications in your cabinet and dispose of any that have passed their expiration date. Proper disposal methods should also be followed to prevent accidental ingestion by others or environmental contamination. Many pharmacies and community centers offer programs for the safe disposal of expired or unused medications to ensure they do not end up in the wrong hands or harm the environment.

In addition to checking expiration dates, storing medications in original containers with intact labels is essential to avoid confusion and ensure proper dosage is used. Keep medications out of reach of children and pets, preferably in a locked cabinet or high shelf. When traveling, carry medications in original containers and pack them securely to prevent damage. By following these guidelines for proper storage and regular expiration date checks, you can help ensure that your medications remain safe, effective, and beneficial for your health.

Make Sure You Know About Potential Medication Interactions and Side Effects

It is critical for older adults to be cautious about potential interactions and side effects when taking medications. While drugs are designed to alleviate symptoms and improve health, they can sometimes interact with each other in unexpected ways, leading to adverse effects. These interactions can occur between prescription medications, OTC products, herbal supplements, and certain foods. Therefore, disclosing all medications and supplements you take to your healthcare provider is essential to minimize the risk of harmful interactions.

Moreover, being aware of possible side effects is equally important. Every medication has the potential to cause side effects ranging from mild to severe. Some common side effects include drowsiness, nausea, dizziness, and headaches, while others may be more serious, such as allergic reactions or organ damage. Understanding these potential side effects allows individuals to closely monitor their medication responses and seek medical attention if necessary. Additionally, staying informed empowers patients to make thoughtful decisions about their healthcare and communicate effectively with their healthcare providers if they experience adverse reactions.

Furthermore, specific populations, including older adults and those with chronic conditions, may be more susceptible to medication interactions and side effects due to factors like decreased kidney or liver function, multiple comorbidities, or polypharmacy. Therefore, it is crucial for these individuals to proactively discuss their medication regimen with healthcare professionals and carefully follow dosing instructions. Staying informed about potential interactions and side effects can help individuals advocate for themselves and ensure they receive safe and effective treatment. By remaining vigilant and proactive, individuals can minimize the risks associated with medication use and maximize their health and well-being.

The Importance of Keeping a Medication List

Keeping a medication list is an essential aspect of managing your health effectively. Whether managing chronic conditions or taking occasional OTC medications, having a comprehensive list ensures that healthcare providers have accurate information about your current regimen. This list should include the names of all medications, including prescription drugs, OTC medications, vitamins, and supplements. It is vital to note the dosage, frequency, and the reason for taking each medication. This detailed information helps prevent harmful interactions and enables healthcare professionals to make informed decisions about your treatment plan.

Moreover, a medication list serves as a valuable resource during medical emergencies. In situations where you might be unable to communicate, such as during an accident or sudden illness, having a readily accessible list can provide crucial information to emergency responders or healthcare providers. It can also be invaluable when consulting with new healthcare providers, ensuring they completely understand your medical history and current medications, thus facilitating a more effective and personalized care.

Additionally, maintaining a medication list promotes accountability and adherence to prescribed treatments. By regularly updating the list and reviewing it with your healthcare provider during appointments, you can ensure that your medication regimen remains optimized and tailored to your needs. Furthermore, it helps you track any changes or adjustments made to your medications over time, enabling you to monitor your progress and identify potential issues. Ultimately, a medication list empowers individuals to take control of their health, enhance communication with healthcare providers, and promote safer and more effective healthcare outcomes.

I find that many patients do not discuss their medications (including OTC medications) with their healthcare providers. This is a mistake. Please tell your healthcare provider about all the medicines you are taking, just to be safe. You will not regret doing it!

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  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (n.d.). 5 Medication Safety Tips for Older Adults. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/5-medication-safety-tips-older-adults#

  2. Independa. (n.d.). FDA Cautions Older Adults on Multiple Medications. Retrieved from https://independa.com/fda-cautions-older-adults-on-multiple-medications/

  3. Cadogan, C. A., & Hughes, C. M. (2021). Interventions to improve the appropriate use of polypharmacy for older people. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD008165.pub4

  4. U.S. Pharmacist. (n.d.). Potentially Inappropriate OTC Medications in Older Adults. Retrieved from https://www.uspharmacist.com/article/potentially-inappropriate-otc-medications-in-older-adults

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The content on this page is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute professional medical advice. Patients should not use the information presented on this page for diagnosing a health-related issue or disease. Before taking any medication or supplements, patients should always consult a physician or qualified healthcare professional for medical advice or information about whether a drug is safe, appropriate or effective.