Painkiller Safety 101: Elderly

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Many people assume that because over-the-counter painkillers can be purchased without a prescription, they must be safe. However, self-diagnosis and self-medication are never the best approach — particularly for seniors. When painkillers are necessary, follow this guide to using them safely.

Don’t Dismiss Pain

Although it’s normal to experience more aches and pains as you age, you shouldn’t dismiss particular pain you feel as just another part of growing older. If you experience new or worsening pain, talk to your doctor about it. Using over-the-counter painkillers only treats the symptom, not the cause.

Persistent pain is never normal, so let your health care provider help with a diagnosis and treatment plan. Be prepared to answer questions about the intensity of your pain and what seems to trigger it. Would you describe the pain as aching, burning, or stabbing? Does it get worse at night or better as the day goes along?

Follow Your Doctor’s Advice

Although you could self-medicate with over-the-counter painkillers, that route is inadvisable — especially if you are taking any other medications. Drug interactions can create new health problems, and not all painkillers are created equal. They contain different active ingredients that work in different ways to relieve pain.

Once your doctor diagnoses the cause of your pain, he or she will be able to recommend the best painkiller for your situation. Make sure you follow any instructions exactly. If the bottle says that a certain painkiller should be taken with food, don’t take it on an empty stomach. Even instructions about when to take it (before bedtime, for example) are important.

Report Any Changes

If you have followed your doctor’s instructions and your pain is still not under control, don’t increase your dosage or switch to a different painkiller. Instead, report any new or worsening symptoms to your doctor as soon as possible. Even opioids, which have been considered one of the safest options for older patients, can carry serious risks. Reporting side effects early on rather than suffering through them could end up saving your life.

Play It Safe

If you do need to take a painkiller before getting your doctor’s advice, acetaminophen is usually the safest option. However, it can be dangerous to take in conjunction with the blood-thinner Coumadin, and you will need to limit your alcohol intake and keep within the recommended daily dosage.

Those with memory problems may need help keeping track of their medications. A chart or reminder system could help you avoid accidental overdose. You also need to be careful not to take two drugs that could negatively interact or two drugs that have the same active ingredient. For an extra safeguard, use a single pharmacy to fill all of your prescriptions,  and purchase your over-the-counter drugs there as well. A pharmacist who knows all of the medications you are currently taking can help you steer clear of these problems.

Over-the-counter or prescription painkillers can be an effective way to manage your pain when used as directed under the supervision of a doctor. If you are caring for a senior living in pain, encourage him or her to follow the foregoing tips for his or her own safety.



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