Drug interactions and adverse reactions send nearly 700,000 people to emergency rooms and cause 100,000 people to be hospitalized each year, according to data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System. The danger of drug interactions and adverse reactions increases a great deal as you age for several different reasons:
- Older people are more likely to take several prescription medications. The National Center for Health Statistics reports that 75% of Americans 75 and older take at least five prescription medicines on a daily basis. Approximately 12% take 10 or more medications. Many also regularly take over-the-counter medications and supplements.
- Medications affect older people differently. As you age, your body’s fat stores increase while the total amount of water in your body decreases. This can cause fat-soluble drugs to remain in the body longer as well as higher concentrations of water-soluble drugs in your body. Changes that occur in your liver and kidneys as you age can also change how medications affect you, resulting in longer periods of time before the drugs clear your system. Digestive system changes can alter how quickly medications enter your blood stream.
- Managing multiple medications can present challenges. If you have medications that need to be taken at different times of day or under different circumstances, for example with food or on an empty stomach, it can be difficult to make sure you’re taking all your medications appropriately. In addition, cognitive issues can make it harder to remember if or when you took your medications. That can result in an overdose if you take the medications twice. Forgetting to take your medications can also cause health consequences, such as increased blood sugar or blood pressure.
How to lower your risk of drug interactions and adverse reactions
There are a number of proactive steps you can take to reduce your risk of experiencing drug interactions or adverse reactions:
- Keep an updated list of all the prescription medications, over-the-counter-drugs, and supplements you take. If you see more than one doctor, make sure the list is included in your medical record with each physician. An electronic universal medical record that can be shared by all your treating physicians and with any physician who treats you in an emergency can also be a valuable tool for preventing medication interactions. Your medication list should include the name of the medications, how often you take them, and the dosage.
- Ask your doctor about the benefits and risks of your medications. Talk with your doctors about why they’re prescribing a medication, what side effects it may cause, how long you’ll need to take the medication, and whether you need any lab tests or follow-up to monitor treatment. Ask if any new medications could cause interactions with other medications you’re taking or any foods and what the signs of an interaction are. You can double check for potential interactions by using a drug interaction checker like this one developed by Medscape. The online tool lets you check prescription and over-the-counter medications as well as supplements.
- Find out if there’s a non-drug treatment option. Ask your doctor if there are non-drug options to treat your condition, such as physical therapy for muscle and joint pain or dietary changes that can lower cholesterol.
- Do a yearly medication review with your doctor. Bring all your medications to your primary care physician and ask him or her to review each medication. They may uncover medications you no longer need, dosages that may need to be changed, or medications that may interact.
- Check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking an over-the-counter medication. Some prescription medications contain drugs that are also available without a prescription, such as the pain relieving anti-inflammatory medications ibuprofen or naproxen. Ask if the over-the-counter medication contains duplicative ingredients or could interact with your prescription medications.
- Get all your prescriptions filled at the same pharmacy. Most pharmacies use computer systems that flag potential interactions and many have customer profiles that you can complete to list all the medications you take.
- Get your medications organized with a pill box. Use a weekly pill organizer rather than leaving your medications in the prescription bottles. Once a week, fill each box with a day’s worth of medications. Some even organize by the time of day your medications should be taken (morning, afternoon, evening, bed, etc.). An organizer can help lower the risk that you’ll accidentally take your medications more often than necessary or miss a dose.