Medicines: Use Them Safely

When Jerry, age 71, came home from the drug store with his latest medication, he placed all his pill bottles on the kitchen counter and counted them. "I take seven different medications," he said to his wife. "We need a system. We need to know what medicines we have, what they're for, and when we should take them."

Modern medicine has made our lives better in many ways. It has helped older adults live longer, healthier lives. But people over 65 have to be careful when taking medications, especially when they're taking many different drugs.

What Are Medicines? What Are Drugs?

Some people refer to the pills they take as "medicine" and other people call them "drugs." Both words can refer to:

Drugs you get without a doctor's prescription are called over-the-counter medicines. Because mixing certain medicines can cause problems, be sure to let your doctor know about all the prescription and over-the-counter drugs you are taking. Keep an updated list of medicines you are taking with you at all times.

Generic or Brand Name?

When getting a prescription filled, you may have a choice between either a generic or brand-name drug. Generic and brand-name medicines are alike because they act the same way in the body and they contain the same active ingredients. The generic version works like the brand-name in dosage, safety, strength, performance, and use.

Generic drugs often cost less. If you want a generic drug, ask the pharmacist if that's a choice. Not all drugs are available in the generic form.

At Your Doctor's Office

You've gone to your doctor because you don't feel well. The doctor decides a medicine will help and writes a prescription. What should you do next?

  • Tell your doctor or nurse about all the medicines you take whenever a new drug is prescribed.
  • Remind your doctor or nurse about your allergies and any problems you have had with medicines, such as rashes, indigestion, dizziness, or mood changes.
    • Find out the right way to take the medicine before you start using it. Ask questions. It might help to write down the answers. You might want to know:
    • What is the name of the medicine, and why am I taking it?
    • How many times a day should I take it and at what time? If the bottle says take "4 times a day," does that mean 4 times in 24 hours or 4 times during the daytime?
    • Should I take the medicine before, after, or between meals? Is there anything I should avoid eating when taking this medicine?
    • What does "as needed" mean?
    • When should I stop taking the medicine?
    • If I forget to take my medicine, what should I do?
    • What side effects can I expect? What should I do if I have a problem?