With aging come more ailments, aches and pains. But a strategically stocked medicine cabinet can help ease everyday exercise injuries, indigestion and allergies at 50 and beyond.
Before you start putting together your first-aid stash, talk to your doctor or pharmacist about the medications you take — including vitamins or supplements — and any potential drug interactions. Just because something is available without a prescription does not mean it’s harmless, says Stefanie Ferreri, a pharmacist and chair of the Division of Practice Advancement and Clinical Education at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy. Over-the-counter drugs “are safe when they're used appropriately,” she says, but can be dangerous when misused or when mixed with other medications.
Older adults, especially, “have to be very cautious with the doses” of drugs, due to age-related changes that affect the way the body reacts to medications, says Katherine Bennett, M.D., assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine at the University of Washington. Again, this is where a doctor or pharmacist can help you choose the safest options available.
Here’s what you should and shouldn’t include, plus some additional advice from the experts:
1. Pain relievers
When it comes to pain relief, Bennett recommends that older patients in particular start with acetaminophen (Tylenol is the brand name). That’s because nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) — which include ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve) — can raise bleeding risks in the gastrointestinal tract, and this risk increases with age, Bennett says. NSAIDs can also damage the kidneys and raise blood pressure, especially if used over a long period.
“For someone who is generally healthy, using an anti-inflammatory once in a while is OK. It can be safe, but only if you have talked to your doctor or pharmacist about whether there are reasons that one might not be safe for you,” Bennett adds. If you take an NSAID for longer than 10 days, you should see your doctor, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises.
Medicine Safety Tips
- Avoid combination medications: Treat the individual symptoms you have, and steer clear of combination formulas, such as a pain reliever coupled with a decongestant. Hidden ingredients can bring on unwanted side effects.
- Check in with your pharmacist: The next time you head to the drugstore, make it a point to talk with the pharmacist. Many can do what’s called a medication check-in to answer safety questions about the drugs and supplements you’re taking.
- Try to fill your prescriptions at the same pharmacy: This will better enable your pharmacist to do a comprehensive review of your medications each time you fill a prescription.
- Clear out old drugs: Get rid of expired or unused medicines by taking advantage of a drug-takeback program to ensure your safety and the safety of others in your household.
That said, acetaminophen isn’t risk-free. Taking too much can lead to severe liver damage. And just as with other medications, “there are a lot of drug interactions that could potentially exist with acetaminophen, too,” Ferreri says. So talk to a professional before you take it.
Often overlooked are topical pain relievers, such as methyl salicylate/menthol (Bengay, Icy Hot) for sore muscles, and diclofenac (Voltaren) for arthritis pain. “And many times in my older adult patients, I will go with those first,” Ferreri says — especially since they’re less likely to come with side effects. There are also over-the-counter lidocaine patches that can be applied to aches.
One more thing: Since heart attack risk increases in midlife, it doesn’t hurt to keep a full-dose aspirin (also an NSAID) on hand, just in case you or anyone around you experiences one. Taking aspirin during a heart attack, while waiting for emergency help to arrive, could reduce heart damage since it helps to keep the blood from clotting.