6 OTC Drugs That Can Be Dangerous for Older Adults

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Illustration by Julie Bang for Verywell Health

Key Takeaways

  • Older adults have higher risks and rates of side effects from OTC drugs than younger people because bodies become more sensitive to medication over time.

  • OTC drugs are not necessarily any less potent than prescription drugs.

  • Look at ingredients on OTC drug packaging to be sure another product you take doesn’t contain the same active ingredient.

A recent review of over two dozen studies found that people aged 60 and older rely more heavily on over-the-counter (OTC) drugs than younger adults, often without realizing that they come with health risks and side effects.1

The review, published in the journal Cureus, found that older adults rely on OTC drugs for a number of reasons:

  • They’ve used them before and trust the products they’re familiar with

  • There’s no need for a doctor’s visit for a prescription

  • OTC drugs are often more affordable than prescription drugs

  • The drugs are often recommended by doctors, friends, and family

The most common health reasons for taking the drugs, according to the review, were headache, abdominal pain, cough, joint pain, and fever. The number one malady cited by participants was a headache, and the most commonly used nonprescription drugs were pain relievers.

Researchers also found that “seniors are more likely to experience negative medication responses than younger people.” This may pose an issue if and when they need care for those reactions: A 2013 FDA seminar on OTC drugs and older adults found that while 86% of people said they routinely used OTC drugs, only about half told their doctors.

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This article Submitted to MSRN by Pat France, Volunteer