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Medication Safety

Because they tend to have more chronic illnesses such as arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, people who are 60 or older use more prescription and over-the-counter medications than any other age group. Medications can change our lives by helping us deal with chronic diseases and allowing us to live healthier and longer.

Because older adults may have multiple health issues, it is common for them to take many medications—and researchers estimate that one-third have had problems with those medications. My experience has been that many people do not know what medications they are taking and why they are taking them.

Two actions to improve participation in your health care are knowing your medications and keeping a current list of your medications. Remember that there are two types of medications: drugs your doctor prescribes for you, called prescription drugs, and those you can get without a doctor's prescription, called over-the-counter drugs. These over-the-counter products include vitamins and minerals, herbal and dietary supplements, laxatives, cold medicines, and antacids.

What should you know about your medications? The following information is important:

  • The branded and generic names of the medication;
    What health condition the medication treats;
  • The form and color of the medication (pill, liquid, injection);
  • The dosage you take (mcg, mg, gm, IU, mEq);
  • How much you take (one pill each time you take the medicine, or more);
  • When and how you should take it (time of day, with or without food, whole or crushed, with a full glass of water, on an empty stomach);
  • The name of the physician who prescribed the medication;
  • The date the medication was started and will be stopped (if applicable);
  • How you should store the medication (does it need refrigeration?);
  • What side effects you might experience and whether you should report them;
  • Whether the medicine can interact with other prescriptions, over-the-counter medicines, or herbal and dietary supplements;
  • How you will feel while taking the medicine and how you'll know whether it's working; and
  • What to do if you forget to take a dose.

Remember that your medication list needs to include prescriptions, over-the-counter medi-cations, vitamins, and dietary supplements. Keep the list in your wallet or purse, update it when anything changes, and show it to every health provider you see.

If you are admitted to the hospital, you can present the medication list, but this will only be helpful if you keep it up-to-date. Many hospitals and doctors have pocket forms that you can fill out to carry in your wallet or purse. If you have Internet access, you can find forms by searching under "my personal medication list forms." The easiest way to make a list of your medications may be to use a 3 x 5 card.

Taking several medicines can be difficult to do safely, so your pharmacist can be helpful. It is important to use the same pharmacy for all your drugs. The more medications you take, the more likely it is that they would have interactions. Just because a drug or medicine can be purchased without a prescription does not mean it is safe for you to take. Your pharmacy can check for interactions.

Also, make sure you read and save any information that comes with each medicine. Ask questions when the information is not clear.

Be empowered by personal medication safety!