12 items every older adult should keep in the medicine cabinet – and 6 to avoid
By Sari Harrar
Learn the do’s and don’ts of choosing your over-the-counter health supplies
Always be prepared. It’s what your parents and teachers taught you — and it may even be one of your personal mottos to this day. But when was the last time you examined the contents of your medicine cabinet and first-aid kit?
Taking a fresh look at what you have on hand versus what you may need can really pay off. That’s true all the time, but it’s smarter than ever these days, when being prepared with the right over-the-counter (OTC) supplies can save you trips to the store or even, in some cases, your provider’s office.
Not every remedy at the drugstore is right for you, though. You’ll want to choose items geared to the health needs of older adults for the safest and most effective home care, says Sunny Linnebur, Pharm.D., a professor and clinical pharmacy specialist for the University of Colorado Hospital Seniors Clinic.
“Older adults are often more sensitive to the side effects of medications or may have chronic illnesses that could be worsened by them,” says Linnebur. “These situations can occur with prescription and over-the-counter drugs.”
Plus, she adds, warnings about side effects and drug interactions shown on packages and inserts are often displayed in fine print, which may be difficult for older adults to read. “So it’s important to communicate with your doctor or pharmacist about over-the-counter medications you take or want to use.”
Here, Linnebur helps you take the guesswork out of which medicine cabinet staples can be good choices for older adults.
What to stock for occasional aches, pains and fever
Good for mild, persistent pain, acetaminophen is your safest choice of the OTC pain relievers. The less-safe options are aspirin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen or naproxen.
Linnebur points out that aspirin and NSAIDs can have unwanted side effects including digestive system bleeding, ulcers, increases in blood pressure and leg swelling in patients with heart or kidney trouble. Check with your provider before you use aspirin or NSAIDs for aches and pains, she says.
Rub-on cream or gel pain reliever
Linnebur says she often recommends a topical gel that contains diclofenac, which is part of the NSAID family, for older adults with joint pain. “It works similarly to oral pain relievers,” she says, “but without the unwanted side effects because it’s topical.”
What to stock for hay fever and other respiratory allergies
Antihistamines containing loratadine, cetirizine or fexofenadine
“These are safe for most older adults who have regular or seasonal allergies that cause sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes and/or nasal congestion,” Linnebur says.
Avoid so-called “first generation” antihistamines that contain ingredients such as diphenhydramine, chlorpheniramine, brompheniramine or dimenhydrinate, she says. In older adults, these can cause drowsiness, falls, confusion, constipation and problems urinating, she says.
Corticosteroid nasal spray containing fluticasone, triamcinolone or budesonide
If your only allergy symptoms are runny nose and congestion, Linnebur says a nasal spray may be a better choice than an oral remedy. The spray quickly zooms in on those prime targets for faster relief.
Antihistamine eye drops containing olopatadine or ketotifen
Similar to the nose spray, eye drops may be more effective than an allergy pill if your main allergy symptoms are itchy, watery eyes, she says.
What to stock for nasal congestion from a cold or sinus infection
Saline spray or a saline nasal wash
Mucus buildup in your sinus passages is never fun, and Linnebur says these remedies should be the first choice of relief for older adults. “They will likely be more effective than a decongestant nasal spray to clear out thick mucus,” she says. Nasal saline comes in many formulations and can be used up to twice daily.
What to stock for constipation
Laxative containing polyethylene glycol or senna
For once-in-a while or short-term bouts of constipation, these laxatives can be helpful, says Linnebur. Laxatives with polyethylene glycol draw fluid into your bowels to soften stool for easier passage, while senna products help stimulate the intestinal muscles to produce a bowel movement.
You’ll also see bulk-forming laxatives. These contain ingredients such as psyllium, inulin, wheat dextrin, methylcellulose or polycarbophil. They form soft, big stools in the intestinal tract, stimulating intestinal muscles to move things along. They’re helpful, but Linnebur says they don’t work as quickly to relieve constipation so they’re more for prevention of constipation. If you choose one, read the instructions carefully, paying close attention to the amount of water you should be drinking while taking it.
What to stock for diarrhea
Anti-diarrhea remedies like this are meant for only occasional, short-term use, she says. That’s why they’re often promoted for “traveler’s diarrhea.” Don’t take more than the amount recommended on the label, she says, as taking more can cause rare but serious heart problems.
What to stock for heartburn
By neutralizing stomach acid, antacids can quickly relieve occasional heartburn discomfort. But they may interact with some medications, so talk to your provider if you’re taking antacids regularly.
What to stock for minor cuts and scrapes
Bandages, adhesive tape and sterile gauze pads
Have several sizes of adhesive bandages for cuts and scrapes, suggests the American College of Emergency Physicians. Bigger gauze pads and adhesive tape come in handy for larger, minor wounds.
After you’ve cleaned a minor cut, scrape or scratch with mild soap and water and stopped any bleeding, apply a thin layer of petroleum jelly and cover the area with a clean bandage. Petroleum jelly keeps minor wounds moist for faster healing and works as effectively as antibiotic ointments, as long as you clean the wound and change the bandage every day, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
It’s also good to have a few first-aid supplies on hand for minor emergencies. Add the following items to your shopping list, and store them together in a small, clear container:
- Calamine lotion for stings or poison ivy
- Disposable gloves
- Elastic bandage for sprains
- Eyewash solution
- Instant cold pack
- Roll of gauze
- Scissors for cutting gauze
- Sterile cotton balls and cotton swabs
- Tweezers for removing splinters