Side Effects of Medicine May Increase With Aging

Sometimes medicines can cause side effects. Side effects can be minor or life-threatening. They are more common as people age, so it's important to understand how to identify and prevent side effects.

It can be difficult to distinguish between side effects and symptoms of disease, especially in people who have several different diseases. For example, dizziness might be mistaken for a symptom of heart disease, rather than a side effect from a new medication

Common side effects from medicines are dizziness, fatigue, constipation or headache. Since some side effects are very vague, such as difficulties with balance or memory, people may attribute them to normal aging.

Side effects are more common in older people since many have several chronic diseases or conditions and, therefore, are often taking several medicines. The more medicines a person is taking, the more likely it is that he or she may experience side effects. There is also a greater chance that medicines can interact with each other.

Changes in the body that occur with age can affect how medicines are processed by the body and removed from the body. When medicine is swallowed, it is absorbed through the wall of the stomach and goes into the bloodstream. After the blood carries the medicine to the tissues, the medicine is eventually removed from the body by the kidneys and liver.

As people get older, the kidneys and liver do not remove drugs as efficiently. Therefore, drug levels in the bloodstream may become higher than expected and cause side effects. Health care providers can use lower doses of medication to prevent drug levels from becoming too high. Certain diseases can also affect how drugs are handled in the body. For example, high blood pressure and diabetes can damage the kidneys. And some drugs can reduce the ability of the kidneys or liver to remove drugs.

Many older people also take non-prescription medications, vitamins and supplements. While these can be useful for treating mild symptoms, they can also have some negative side effects. Pain medicines like ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) can affect the kidneys and may cause bleeding stomach ulcers. Seniors should consult with their doctor or pharmacist about the use of over-the-counter medicines to make sure they will not interact with any other medicines. Here are some tips to help you use medicines:

Know the common side effects of all of your medicines.

  • Contact your doctor if you think you are experiencing a side effect. Remember that any new changes in your health may be a drug side effect.

  • Carry a complete list of your medicines, including non-prescription medicines. Share this list with your health care provider.

  • Follow directions. Read the label every time you take the medication to prevent mistakes, and be sure you understand the timing, dose prescribed, and how long to take it. Ask a pharmacist what foods to take with each drug. Some drugs are better absorbed with certain foods, and some drugs shouldn't be taken with certain foods.

  • Throw out medicines that have expired.

  • Do not share medicines with other people. The dose and the medicine were chosen specifically for you and may not be right for other people.

  • Use one pharmacy. Your pharmacist can then keep track of the medicines you use and be aware of any possible problems with interactions.

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