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"Adverse Drug Reactions" 

Seniors may need both prescription and over-the-counter medications to manage chronic conditions. Packaging of over-the-counter medications and printouts given with prescription drugs include a list of "adverse reactions" that each product can cause. 

But what exactly are adverse drug reactions? And what about side effects and allergic reactions? 

An adverse drug reaction refers to any unwanted effects of a medication.  These can range from uncomfortable symptoms to potentially dangerous reactions. Adverse drug reactions do NOT alter the effectiveness (or efficacy) of the drug.

Side effect is the more common term used for unwanted effects. Common side effects include nausea, insomnia, drowsiness, headache, and dry mouth.  Mild side effects are generally not a sign that the drug is doing damage to your body or that you need to stop taking the medication. They are simply part of what happens when the drug is absorbed and processed. For the most part, side effects are predictable, and many are tolerable.

More serious side effects can include vomiting, bleeding in the intestinal tract, or dizziness. When serious side effects occur, the medication will be discontinued.

Allergic reactions are actually quite rare.  Rather than noticing any of the above side effects, someone with an allergy to a medication is more likely to develop hives, itching, or trouble breathing. If you develop any of those symptoms, it is important to call your doctor and get medical advice right away.

Anyone can have a negative reaction to a drug. It can happen the first time you take it, or it can happen with long-term use.  Some factors that put people at higher risk for having an adverse drug reaction are:

  • Age: seniors and children can be more susceptible
  • Medical conditions: asthma, emphysema, heart disease, diabetes, and thyroid problems
  • Polypharmacy: using several medications at the same time, including prescriptions, over-the-counter medications, and natural health products.

According to, here's what you can do to help reduce the risk of having an adverse drug reaction:

  • Read the label carefully.  Ask your pharmacist or doctor to explain any information you don't understand.
  • Tell your doctor about ALL the over-the-counter medications, prescriptions, natural health products, and vitamins that you take.
  • Keep track of any adverse reactions and any allergies you had in the past, and avoid products with those ingredients.
  • Do not take medications with alcohol.
  • Do not crush tablets, or mix them with food or beverages (different than "taking with") unless you have checked with your pharmacist.  

Being aware of the risks and following the steps above can help you minimize the discomfort and hazards of adverse drug reactions.

Vol.3, No. 7
� ElderWise Inc., 2007

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Originally published by ElderWise Inc., Canada's "go to" place for families with aging parents, who want clear, concise and timely information about health, housing and relationships.
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