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You may think that over-the-counter (OTC) medications are always safe. But if you are over 65 and also taking prescription medications, this kind of thinking can get you into some trouble.

"The average number of prescription medications taken by people over 65 is five or six,” says Michael H. Perskin, MD, an assistant professor of medicine and an internist at the New York University Langone Medical Center. “As you get older, it increases and so does the potential for drug interactions."

So how can you find effective and safe relief from arthritis and other pain, and cold or allergy symptoms? "When in doubt, ask your pharmacist," Perskin says. "If you have taken the medication before, it's probably OK. But if it's new or your other medication regimen has changed, check it out."

Here are some other drug safety guidelines for using pain relievers, antihistamines, and cold medications.  

Drug Safety: Use One Pharmacy

If you fill all prescriptions at one pharmacy, all the important information about what you take and when you take it is in a central location. Ask the pharmacist if any OTC or herbal medications will interact with your prescriptions. She can likely tap into a computer, see what else you take, and let you know right then and there.

Learning about interactions with commonly used OTC remedies can also assure smart choices. "Always read the labels and follow the dosing instructions," Perskin says.

Talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you have any medical conditions or take other medications. They can help explain what risks you may have and what precautions to take.

Complications of Using NSAIDs

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) is the blanket name for such OTC medications as aspirin (Bayer, Bufferin, St. Joseph), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and naproxen sodium (Aleve). When your arthritis flares, it may be tempting to reach for an NSAID to curb the joint pain and inflammation and get back in the bridge or golf game. But there are some things you should know first.

NSAIDs also interfere with warfarin (Coumadin), a commonly prescribed blood thinner. In fact, there is a laundry list of medications and herbal supplements that can weaken or strengthen the effects of Coumadin. Your doctor should make it very clear what other medications and herbal preparations to avoid if you’re taking it. "You have to watch really carefully because there are so many drug interactions," Perskin tells WebMD.

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