High-risk medications

Not everyone reacts to medication in the same way. Your friends may take a medication that works well for them, but it may not work for you at all, even if you have the same medical condition. It is good to know how drugs may affect your body and about any negative side effects that may happen so you can be on the lookout. Some medications are called “high-risk” because they can cause harmful side effects including falls, confusion, drowsiness, and weakness.

What are high-risk medications?

A high-risk medication is one that may cause serious health problems if taken improperly, or taken with another drug or food item that it may interact with. Some examples include:

  • Medication that makes you drowsy, causes depression or confusion, or has other potentially dangerous side effects
  • Medication for one health condition that may make another health problem worse

Taking multiple medications together may affect how they work and may even be dangerous.

How aging may affect your treatment

As you age, your body begins to handle medication differently than it used to. If you are age 65 or older, you should take special care when taking your medication, even though you may feel perfectly healthy. Some changes people experience when they age include:

  • Changes in sleep
  • Reduced functional ability
  • Changes in memory
  • Changes in eating and digestion
  • Changes in how the body handles medication

In some cases, it may take your kidneys and liver more time to process medications, and some medications may stay in your body longer. This may cause your medication to be stronger or weaker than it has been in the past, and you may be more likely to experience side effects. You may also experience side effects from taking multiple medications that may interact together in a way that is harmful to your body. You can work to make sure that the medications you are taking are safe by learning more about high-risk medications and talking to your doctor about your treatment and the medications you take.

Taking high-risk medications

If your doctor has prescribed you a high-risk medication, this does not mean you should not take it; it just means that you should take care when using it and discuss any concerns with your doctor. Some things to remember:

  • Work with your doctor and your pharmacist to avoid having any issues with the medications you are taking
  • Be organized with your medication and take it the way your doctor has prescribed
  • Make a list of all your medications, taking note of when you take them and at what doses
  • Share this list with your doctor, especially when visiting a new doctor, and ask whether there are any medications that you should not be taking or do not need. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about potential side effects.
  • Share your list with a pharmacist and ask about any interactions from the medications you are taking
  • Know your medications by name, understand what they do, and read the information sheets that come with your medications

Talk to your doctor

It is always important to talk to your doctor first regarding any high-risk medications you might be taking. Simple cold medications or even herbs may interact poorly with high-risk medications. Some questions you may want to ask your doctor include:

  • What is my medication for?
  • How should I take my medication?
  • What are the benefits or side effects of my medication?
  • Even though I am not currently experiencing any side effects, am I at an increased risk for harmful side effects from taking this medication?
  • Is it possible to switch my medication to a safer alternative?
  • Can my medication increase my risk of falls?
  • Will my medication interact poorly with any other medications I’m taking?
  • Will my medication have an effect on any other medical conditions I have?

Learn more about high-risk medications

PDFReview this list (link opens in new window) to see if you are currently taking a high-risk medication.