12 items every older adult should keep in the medicine cabinet (and 6 to avoid)

Learn the do’s and don’ts of choosing your over-the-counter health supplies.

Sari Harrar
mature Hispanic woman talking to a nurse about medication

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.”

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Here, Linnebur helps you take the guesswork out of which medicine cabinet staples can be good choices for older adults. Many OTC health products can even be purchased with credits that some UnitedHealthcare® Medicare Advantage1 plans provide to you. (Check your plan's website to see if yours includes this benefit.)

What to Stock for Occasional Aches, Pains and Fever 

Acetaminophen. 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.

Stay-healthy tip: Pay careful attention to dosage instructions; too much acetaminophen can cause liver problems. Frail older adults, along with people who have liver problems or who drink alcohol regularly may want to take lower doses, Linnebur cautions.

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.”

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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.

Stay-healthy tip: If you take any OTC remedies and medications regularly, discuss them with your provider to be sure it’s safe to continue. Even products recommended for older adults could affect a health condition you have or could interact with other medications you take. “One example where it could be a concern is someone with glaucoma, as antihistamines and corticosteroids can sometimes increase pressure in the eye,” Linnebur says. Eye pressure is the balance of fluid in your eye that helps support good vision and overall eye health.

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.

Stay-healthy tip: Avoid decongestant pills, says Linnebur. Their active ingredients, pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine, can raise blood pressure and heart rate. They can also cause insomnia and make urination difficult, especially for men.

“Decongestant nasal sprays — specifically oxymetazoline — are effective and avoid these side effects,” Linnebur says. But for older adults, they can only be used safely for a few days. Overuse and regular use of these sprays can cause what’s known as rebound nasal congestion, where the sprays actually make your congestion worse, she says.

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.

Stay-healthy tip: If you become constipated regularly, it’s important to be sure you’re eating plenty of fiber-rich foods, drinking enough water and getting physical activity. “Speak with your doctor to evaluate current medications for causes of constipation before taking a laxative regularly, too,” Linnebur suggests. Sometimes, the solution may be as simple as trying a different medication or a different dose.

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What to Stock for Diarrhea

Loperamide. 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.

Stay-healthy tip: Call your provider anytime you have diarrhea, says Linnebur. Older adults can quickly become dehydrated or lose electrolytes (minerals essential for healthy body functions) with diarrhea, she explains. Diarrhea in older adults may be caused by a food-borne infection or treatment-resistant Clostridium difficile that requires medical care.

What to Stock for Heartburn

Antacid. 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.

Stay-healthy tip: Discuss heartburn with your provider before you take over-the-counter heartburn drugs called H2 blockers or proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs), she says. Some H2 blockers can cause confusion and drowsiness. PPIs may increase your risk for pneumonia or osteoporosis. Both types of drugs may cause nutrient deficiencies, too.

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.

Stay-healthy tip: Your skin can become thin and fragile as you age. Silicone bandages and other bandages for sensitive skin are easier to remove without tearing or irritation. Sterile gauze pads and paper tape is another option if your skin is sensitive to adhesives. Gauze pads that say “non-stick” are also preferred.

Petroleum jelly. 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.

Stay-healthy tip: Call your health care provider right away if a cut or scrape worries you or doesn’t heal quickly, or if you have diabetes and notice a cut, scrape, scratch or blister on your feet.

First-aid kit. 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

Stay-healthy tip: Be careful with hydrocortisone cream. Often used for itching, hydrocortisone cream can cause skin thinning, burning and other side effects. These may be worse for older adults, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

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