It is not unusual to accumulate bathroom cabinet clutter. Many of us have a collection of half-empty shampoo bottles, aftershave or skin care products tucked away on our shelves. Most of the time, these past-their-prime products are harmless. But when it comes to medications, keeping them — and taking them —beyond their expiration dates can be deadly.
If it’s old, oust it
All prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications have an expiration date on the label. Take that date seriously. Expired medications can break down and change with time, rendering them at best ineffective and, at worst, very harmful. For example, the commonly prescribed antibiotic tetracycline can cause a deadly skin reaction if taken after it expires. To ensure that this does not happen to you, go through your cabinet now and discard any medications that are past their expiration date. If you find a medication that doesn’t have a date on it and you cannot remember when you purchased it, play it safe and get rid of it. Do the same with any medications that are discolored, separated, crumbly, powdery or smelly, even if they haven’t yet reached the expiration date.
It may be tempting to simply throw your old medications into the trash, but that’s not a good idea either. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, take unused, unneeded, or expired prescription drugs out of their original containers and mix them with an undesirable substance, such as used coffee grounds or kitty litter, then put them in impermeable, nondescript containers, such as empty cans or sealable bags, which will further ensure the drugs are not diverted and that children and pets cannot get to them. Flushing old medications down the toilet may also be an option, but this can be risky as it may introduce medications into the water supply. Only discard them in this manner if the label or accompanying patient information instructs doing so. Lastly, take advantage of community pharmaceutical take-back programs that allow the public to bring unused drugs to a central location for proper disposal. Some communities offer these types of programs, and where these exist, they are a good way to dispose of unused pharmaceuticals.
Safer storage solutions
While you are cleaning out your medicine cabinet, take a minute to decide if it is really the best place to store your medications. Medicine cabinets are great for toothpaste and soap, but the humidity in the bathroom or kitchen (another common storage choice) can be bad medicine for your pills and liquids, potentially causing them to break down more quickly and render them less useful. Drugs stored in humid conditions can deteriorate and even expire well before the date on the label.
The best place to keep your prescription and over-the-counter medications is in a cool, dark place such as a closet or cabinet. If you have small children, take extra precautions. Some medications come in very pretty colors, and storing them out of reach or “hiding” them may not be good enough. Keep medications away from curious hands in a locked, tackle-type box to prevent accidental overdoses.
It is a good idea to keep certain medications and supplies in your home for coughs and colds, minor injuries and emergencies. Here is a shopping list of the basics: Acetaminophen; antibiotic cream; antacid; anti-diarrhea medication; antiseptic solution to clean cuts; calamine lotion to treat bug bites and other itchy problems; cold and cough medications; cold pack; cotton balls and swabs; eye wash and drops; laxative; petroleum jelly; scissors and tweezers; sunscreen; and a thermometer. Once your medicine supply is stocked and organized, take inventory once a year to replace items that have expired.
Remember to finish any course of antibiotics your doctor prescribes, even if you begin to feel better after just a couple of days. This is important to prevent the return of an infection and antibiotic resistance. Refrain from transferring any pills or liquids into containers labeled for other medications; for example, don’t put your antibiotics into an empty aspirin bottle. Someone may mistakenly take your prescription medication when they really needed an over-the-counter pain reliever. Never share medications with friends or family. Even if it seems like they have the same illness or symptoms, only a physician can diagnose and prescribe medications. Always carry a list of medications that you take, along with dosages, frequency and allergies — prescription, over-the-counter and herbal. In case of an emergency, this list could be extremely valuable in preventing drug interactions, and not just with prescriptions medications. Even some vitamins and many herbal supplements can react negatively with common medications, cause unpleasant side effects or render them ineffective.
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