Home remedies for cold and flu season conjure images of chicken noodle soup on the stovetop, warm towels coiled around the neck, and cordials containing brandy. Family cures for the sniffles and coughs, passed down for years, may have taken a backseat to cold and flu treatments like DayQuil and Theraflu in our medicine cabinets.
But you may want to think twice about choosing these over-the-counter cold and flu medicines. "As we age, many things that can alter the manner in which medications work and how our bodies metabolize and excrete them change," says John R. White, chair of WSU-Spokane's Department of Pharmacotherapy and InHealth contributor. Slowed circulation may affect how fast drugs get into the liver and kidneys, even changing how drugs are broken down and removed from the body. Changes in the digestive system can affect how fast medicines enter the bloodstream, and changes in body weight can influence the amount of medicine needed, or length of time it stays in the body. Ingredients in antihistamines or sleep aids can remain in the body for extended periods of time, causing confusion and falls.
Boomers also are at risk for detrimental interactions between prescription medications and OTC remedies. Anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin shouldn't be taken in combination with blood-thinning drugs like Coumadin. Labels on decongestants warn they shouldn't be taken by people with asthma, those taking blood pressure medication, or men with enlarged prostates. "In most cases decongestants won't cause significant problems," says White. "But there are instances where they may." He recommends consulting with a pharmacist or physician before embarking on self-medicating. That's because some drug interactions can be serious. "For example, taking dextromethorphan containing cough syrup with a certain type of antidepressant (MAO inhibitors) can result in a potentially fatal interaction."
Registered nurse Tiffany Murphy has seen it all — from boiling pans of water used as makeshift humidifiers, chests slathered with Vicks VapoRub, to oversized pots of chicken soup and loved ones propped in beds piled high with pillows.
Murphy and her husband Mark operate Spokane Senior Helpers — an organization of in-home caregivers that provide personal, companion, Alzheimer's, medicine assistance and general care to area seniors.
"We take a holistic approach," Murphy says. "I do a lot of health coaching during visits to ensure my clients are safe and their needs are being met... the fact is, seniors are more susceptible to colds. When you're in your 20s and 40s you're active and can fight off infections."
Murphy and her team encourage seniors to use what works best for them — be that natural remedies like ginger root or Echinacea, or flu shots each September — but they also push the basics.
"Increasing fluid intake, using good hand-washing techniques, eating well-balanced meals, vitamins, and getting a good night's sleep are huge," Murphy says. "These basics will help your body resist serious infections like pneumonia."
Once you've developed a cold and flu routine, Murphy encourages her patients to set medicine reminders, and ensure they are using proper intake instructions and doses. Keeping track of how the body is responding to a change in medication is vital — check for side effects like swollen ankles, changes in bathroom behavior, sleep and mood.
"It's all about learning to manage your care," Murphy says. ♦
Using medicine safely
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration advises seniors to note the following safe medicine tips:
Educate yourself: Read medicine labels and package inserts, and follow the directions. Follow up with your doctor or other health care professionals for clarity.
Side effects: Track possible drug interactions and let your doctor know right away about any unexpected symptoms or changes in the way you feel.
Get organized: Use a calendar or pill box to help you remember what you need to take, and when. Write down information your doctor gives you about your medicines or your health condition.
Buddy system: Take a friend or relative to your doctor's appointments if you need help understanding or remembering what your doctor tells you.
Follow through: Have a medicine checkup at least once a year. Go through your medicine cabinet to get rid of expired medicines and ask your doctor or pharmacist to review the medicines you now take. Don't forget to tell them about all over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, dietary and herbal supplements.