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5 Common Medication Errors and How to Avoid Them

Written by OurParents Staff
 about the author
13 minute readLast updated February 11, 2024

Medication errors can result in harmful drug reactions and other health issues, especially for seniors. As a caregiver, it’s important to help your loved one understand their medicines and how to take them correctly. Guiding them through this process helps avoid dangerous medication mistakes and supports their overall health and well-being.

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In the U.S., 86% of seniors aged 65 and older take at least one prescription medicine, and 42% take five or more.[01] This high usage of medicines, as noted by AARP’s report on medication literacy, can be challenging for seniors. They might often get confused by complicated instructions or labels, which leads to mistakes in taking their medications as prescribed.
Taking medication is essential to helping seniors live comfortable and pain-free lives, but it can also be dangerous when taken incorrectly. Some of the most common medication errors can be a loved one taking a second dose of a drug they forgot they already took or forgetting to take a necessary medication each day.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports more than 100,000 medication errors each year, and the rate of drug overdose in seniors has increased for the last two decades.[02] Given that 75% to 96% of older patients admit to making frequent mistakes with their medication, it’s essential to be well-educated and prepared for these worst-case scenarios.[03]
While these statistics may sound daunting or scary, understanding the risks of medication errors is the first step to avoiding dangerous reactions. Here are five of the most common senior medication mistakes and some solutions to help you prevent them.

1. Taking too much

Problem: The rate of deaths by medication overdose (intentional or accidental) is rapidly increasing among adults over age 65 and is one of the most common medication errors made at home.[01] As loved ones age, poor eyesight or decreased cognitive abilities can make it hard for them to recognize pills or remember if they’ve taken a daily dose. Prescription drugs that have the most abuse potential include painkillers like Percocet, benzodiazepines like Xanax, and stimulants such as Adderall.
They’re not the only concerns, however, as it’s possible to overdose on most drugs available today (even over-the-counter medications). The National Institutes of Health report that overdoses of a commonly used medication (Tylenol) have been linked to as many as 2,600 hospitalizations and 500 deaths in a year.[04]
Solution: Measure out drugs ahead of time to prevent your loved one from taking the wrong dose, and make sure your loved one isn’t overusing or being over-prescribed medications. Make a medication safety checklist, and review it every few weeks or during appointments with your doctor. Signs of prescription drug overuse can include symptoms like over-sedation, mood swings, or consistently running out of medication early.

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2. Mixing up medications

Problem: While the FDA carefully reviews drug names to prevent too much similarity, it’s still easy for seniors to choose the wrong medication from a list of daily pills. Some examples that are often confused include:
  • Zantac for heartburn and Zyrtec for allergies.
  • Lamictal for epilepsy and Lamisil for fungal infection.
  • Celebrex for arthritis and Celexa for depression.
Seniors with dementia or cognitive decline might also mix up pills that look visually similar, such as those that share the same color or shape. These mix-ups can quickly evolve from confusing to dangerous, especially if your loved one is taking multiple prescriptions.
Solution: A pill planner is one of the simplest ways to help your loved one keep track of medication. Sorting daily medication in advance can prevent the wrong medication from being taken if your loved one gets confused or struggles to read tiny labels. Most pill planners hold around 1 to 2 weeks’ worth of pills, so you can easily refill them on a schedule. You can buy pill planners at most pharmacies and online. Medications taken as needed (not on a schedule) should be labeled in large writing and stored separately.
Another helpful tool to combat confusion for caregivers is visual drug databases like WebMD or Drugs.com. These programs allow you to search by medication name, color, shape, or pill imprint. With detailed descriptions, clear photos, and basic drug information, these tools can take the guesswork out of pill identification and prevent common medication errors.

3. Medication interactions

Problem: Some medications shouldn’t be mixed. With many seniors taking five or more prescriptions from multiple specialists, patients can be prescribed medications (or take over-the-counter medications) that are dangerous when mixed. For example, a patient could be prescribed a painkiller by a pain management doctor while also taking an over-the-counter antihistamine to fight allergies. Each might be therapeutic when taken by themselves but can cause over-sedation together. It’s important to be on the lookout for these interactions.
Side effects of taking the wrong medication can be different depending on the medications involved but will often include:
  • Over-sedation (dizziness, slurring, trouble breathing)
  • Over-stimulation (fast heart rate, hyperventilation, anxiety)
  • Rash, itching, or swelling
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Stomach or chest pain
Solution: Your loved one’s doctor will likely look for possible interactions and consider them closely before prescribing anything. However, because mistakes happen and communication can fail, it’s important to act as a second line of defense. Start by speaking to your local pharmacist about the medications your loved one is taking and any over-the-counter medicine they use regularly. They can provide detailed guidance and resources specific to each patient’s care.
For more peace of mind, consider using online tools such as Medscape’s Drug Interaction Checker to ensure any prescriptions, supplements, or over-the-counter medications don’t interact poorly.

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4. Food and drug interactions

Problem: Common medication errors can also be caused by interactions with food. For example, seniors taking the common anticoagulant Coumadin or other blood-thinning medicines should avoid eating too much vitamin K. Too much of this vitamin found in leafy greens, broccoli, and brussels sprouts can make blood thinners less effective.[05]
Solution: Look for specific labels on a loved one’s prescription bottle that might mention a food and drug interaction. You can usually find these warnings on the side of your prescription bottles as colored stickers. You might see warnings such as “Do not take with alcohol” or “Avoid taking this medication with grapefruit,” and you should always heed this advice. If you have any concerns, immediately discuss them with a pharmacist or your loved one’s doctor.

5. Wrong route of administration

Problem: Incorrectly administering medications can also lead to senior medication mistakes. This might involve swallowing a tablet that’s intended to be dissolved under the tongue or used as a suppository. Swallowing a liquid intended for injection or use as a nasal spray is another dangerous example. Even seemingly small instructions like “Do not crush or dissolve this pill before taking” can affect how quickly and efficiently a medication can help your loved one get relief.
Solution: Follow the doctor’s orders when helping your loved one take their medication. Because instructions on prescription labels can often be hard to read, ask detailed questions during doctor’s visits and take notes to use at home. For example, you might create a list of clear instructions in large font to keep near your loved one’s medications or hang on the wall. If your loved one is unable to take their medication correctly over the long haul, discuss alternative solutions with their doctor.
Taking care of your loved one’s medications can be difficult. Remembering drug names, keeping track of doses, and asking the pharmacist questions might feel stressful, but it’s all part of the process. Each question you ask, note you make, and pill planner you fill is a way of showing love and ensuring your loved one gets the best care possible. Medication mistakes can be serious, but with planning and help from health care professionals, you can help your loved one live a safer, healthier life.


  1. ​​Kramarow EA, Tejada-Vera B. (2022). Drug overdose deaths in adults aged 65 and over: United States, 2000–2020. NCHS Data Brief, no 455. National Center for Health Statistics.

  2. Mira, J. J. (2019). Medication errors in the older people population. Expert Review of Clinical Pharmacology, 12(6), 491–494.

  3. Suneil Agrawal, & Babak Khazaeni. ( 2022, June 9). Acetaminophen toxicity. National Library of Medicine; StatPearls Publishing.

  4. National Institutes of Health. (2021, March 29). Vitamin K.

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OurParents Staff

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