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CBC MARKETPLACE: YOUR HEALTH » COLD/FLU MEDICATIONS
The potential danger: Non-prescription
pills pack a punch
Broadcast: January 30, 2005
Graydon Meneilly says
the medications can lead to confusion, constipation
and bladder problems in seniors.
Typical cough and cold pills contain
powerful antihistamines and decongestants.
They’re great for drying up a runny
nose, but because we metabolize drugs much more slowly
as we age – they take longer to run through our systems
as we grow older. They can also affect an older person’s
body much more forcefully than younger adults.
Dr. Graydon Meneilly, an expert on the elderly
and head of medicine at Vancouver
General Hospital, says the medications can lead to confusion,
constipation and bladder problems in seniors.
says warnings should be prominently displayed on all over-the-counter
cold medications. But they’re
“It isn’t emphasized enough
on the label,” says
Meneilly, “that ‘if
you’re a senior,
and you have the following conditions, you shouldn’t
take this at all.’”
cold vs. the flu: how can you tell the difference?
the head, causing a stuffy nose and congestion.
The flu goes into the chest. It usually starts
with a fever, chills, severe aches and pains
and a dry cough.
vs. flu symptoms »
For example, Meneilly cites the labelling
on Tylenol Flu Extra Strength:
“It has a caution: ‘Keep
out of reach of children, talk to a doctor if you have a
variety of medical conditions or are on medication.’ But
it doesn’t say anything about being careful if you’re
an old person.”
It’s not just the odd package that doesn’t
carry a warning – we found more than a dozen over-the-counter
cough and cold medications—best-selling
carried no warnings for seniors.
Meneilly says that’s a potentially disastrous
a big problem … All we see is the molehill, but it’s
in fact a mountain.” In Meneilly’s estimation,
case’s like Nick Ciolfitto’s happen “much more frequently
than we think.”
and chlorpheniramine can cause serious problems
Two of the most powerful, common ingredients
in cold and flu medications are diphenhydramine and chlorpheniramine.
They’re big words that appear in small
print on the ingredient lists of many over-the-counter cold
and flu medications.
Diphenhydramine and chlorpheniramine
are antihistamines. They’re
found in more than 30 products in the Canadian market.
containing diphenhydramine and chlorpheniramine (but
no warning for seniors) »
Both can cause serious problems in seniors:
confusion, heavy sedation, bladder retention, severe constipation… and
in the case of diphenhydramine, delirium.
viruses are transmitted in one of two ways: 1)
touching a person's skin (when shaking hands,
for example) or surfaces (like doorknobs or
handrails) and then touching the eyes, nose
or mouth, or 2) by inhaling infectious particles
in the air (like secretions from a cough or
The best way to break the chain of
infection is to wash your hands regularly – and
avoid touching your nose, eyes or mouth.
Diphenhydramine and chlorpheniramine
can be so problematic they’re ranked on something
Beers Critera,’ [link]
a list of medications compiled by leading medical researchers
in the U.S. The list includes drugs the researchers warn
seniors to take.
“In some cases,” Meneilly says seniors using
the drugs can suffer effects “serious enough to require
hospitalization. And sometimes people even die.”
And while Meneilly admits changing the
actual compositions of the medications –getting rid
of diphenhydramine and chloropheniramine– may be
too tall an order, “but at
least if the labels and the warnings are better, that would
really help people to avoid side effects from them.”
Unfortunately, in Canada the regulations
guiding the labelling of over-the-counter medications don’t
seem to measure up.