objectives: to identify the determinants associated with the practice of self-medication in the 60-year-old or older population in the city of salgueiro/pernambuco/brazil. methods: a cross-sectional study was carried out in the urban zone in the city of salgueiro - pe; questionnaires were handed out between may/01/2004 and june/06/2004 in a sample population of 355 persons aged 60 years or more. data were processed and analyzed using epiinfo 6.04 software after a double entry and validated. results: the sample was comprised of 44.9% (159/355) 60-70-year olds, 69.8% (247/355) of which were female, 53.1% (188/355) illiterate, 40.7% (145/355) without having finished high school, and 77.7% (276/355) retired. in the group that used medicines without medical prescription, the drugs used most often were analgesics (30%) and antipyretics (29%). of the reasons presented to justify the use of self-prescribed medicines, pain was the most frequent one (38.3%), followed by fever (24.4%), diarrhea (8.0%), hypertension (8.0%) and cough (5.2%). there was association between the lack of exercise and self-medication (x2 =14.44 p=0.001). conclusions: there is a high prevalence of self-medication in this group; analgesics and antipyretics are the drugs used most often; pain is the symptom that most leads to self-medication; and sedentary individuals use more self-medication than those who exercise.