The problems of anticholinergic adverse effects in older patients

Drugs Aging. 1993 Jul-Aug;3(4):335-48. doi: 10.2165/00002512-199303040-00004.


The old saying 'red as a beet, dry as a bone, blind as a bat, hot as a hare, mad as a hatter' is often quoted when describing the autonomic effects of drugs that block the muscarinic cholinergic system. These effects may be subtle or dramatic, yet can be overlooked or discounted as a natural consequence of old age. Elderly patients can be particularly sensitive to the anticholinergic action of drugs because of physiological and pathophysiological changes that often accompany the aging process. The use of multiple drugs, a common finding in older patients, may result in pharmacodynamic and pharmacokinetic drug interactions that heighten anticholinergic effects. While the classic anticholinergic problems of decreased secretions, slowed gastrointestinal motility, blurred vision, increased heart rate, heat intolerance, sedation and possibly mild confusion, may be uncomfortable for a younger patient in relatively good health, these effects can be disastrous for older patients. Even the most common peripheral anticholinergic complaint of dry mouth can reduce the ability to communicate, predispose to malnutrition, promote mucosal damage, denture misfit or dental caries, and increase the risk of serious respiratory infection secondary to loss of antimicrobial activity of saliva. Mydriasis and the inability to accommodate will impair near vision and may precipitate narrow angle glaucoma in predisposed patients, but less obviously could lead to an increased risk of accidents, including falls. Somatic complaints of constipation and urinary hesitancy, could, in the presence of anticholinergic challenge, result in faecal impaction or urinary retention. Cardiac effects may be poorly tolerated. Increases in heart rate may precipitate or worsen angina. Finally, thermoregulatory impairment induced by anticholinergics, which block the ability to sweat, may lead to life threatening hyperthermia. Central anticholinergic effects range from sedation, mild confusion and inability to concentration to frank delirium. Even mild effects can reduce function and increase dependency. At any level of care, the loss of independence increases the caregiver burden, costs, and most importantly, can negatively affect quality of life. Many age-related and disease-related conditions may predispose elderly patients to anticholinergic drug toxicity. Careful attention to anticholinergic effects when prescribing drugs, patient education, regular review of the entire drug regimen, and familiarity with the signs and symptoms of anticholinergic toxicity will help to reduce the risk of drug-induced problems.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Cholinergic Fibers / drug effects
  • Cholinergic Fibers / physiology
  • Drug Therapy / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Parasympatholytics / adverse effects*
  • Risk Factors


  • Parasympatholytics