6 Tips to Clean Out Your Medicine Cabinet

Taking expired medicine can be risky, proper disposal is easy

A woman holds a bag with expired medication to be discarded properly.

Taking expired medicine can be risky, proper disposal is easy

When it comes to medications, keeping them beyond their expiration dates and letting them accumulate in your medicine cabinet can be risky.

Timely disposal can reduce the risk of others taking the medication by accident or misusing them intentionally.

Older adults — the most common users of medications — are especially at risk of reaching for the wrong pill bottle in a cluttered medicine cabinet.

“Clean out your medicine cabinet regularly so expired or unused medications don't collect over time and are accidentally or even intentionally taken," says Oscar Cook, MD, a family medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Jefferson in Oceanside. “Safe disposal of unwanted medication is important also to prevent accidents.”

Here are six tips for cleaning out your medicine cabinet.

1.     Check the expiration dates

All prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications have an expiration date on the label that is based on testing. The date is the final day that the manufacturer can guarantee the full potency and safety of the drug, if properly stored.

Some studies show that many drugs can still be taken after their expiration date if they are properly stored.

But is it better to be cautious and dispose of expired medication?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is clear on this question. The FDA says using expired medical products is risky and possibly harmful and recommends proper disposal.

The FDA explains that expired medications can be less effective or risky due to change in composition or decrease in strength. Less potent antibiotics can fail to treat infections for example.

2.     Safely dispose

It may be tempting to throw old medications into the trash, but that’s not a good idea. Children and pets may be able to get to them.

The best option is to bring them to an approved collection site for unwanted medication.

Permanent drug take back locations are sites registered with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

Med-Project, a pharmaceutical nonprofit, operates kiosks drop-off sites for expired or unwanted medications at retail pharmacies, hospitals or clinics and law enforcement agencies across the United States, including California.

3.     Flush only if on “flush list”

Flushing unwanted medicines down the sink or toilet is not recommended unless the information on the packaging specifically instructs you to do so.

The DEA maintains a flushing list. These are medications that can seriously harm people or pets if accidentally taken, including drugs with opioids.

4.      Throw away in trash under certain conditions

If you can’t use a flushing list and have no disposal site, you may be able to throw away most medicines in your trash at home. Follow these steps:

  • Mix medicines with an unappealing substance, such as dirt, kitty litter or used coffee grounds to conceal the medication
  • Place the mixture into sealable bag or another container
  • Throw away in your trash at home
  • Delete all identifying information on the prescription label before throwing away

5.     Store safely

While cleaning out your medicine cabinet, take a minute to decide if that’s the best place to store your medications.

Medicine cabinets work for toothpaste and soap, but the humidity in the bathroom or kitchen can be bad for medications. It can cause them to break down more quickly and render them less useful.

The best place to store most medicines is in a cool, dry and dark area, such as a secure bedside drawer, storage box, closet shelf or kitchen cabinet. Certain medications need to be in the refrigerator.

“It’s really important to read the label on the bottle or package and look for specific storage instructions,” Dr. Cook says.

Consider storing medications away from curious hands — especially children — in a locked, tackle-type box to prevent them get into the wrong hands.

“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,” Dr. Cook says.

6.     Stock up on medicine cabinet basics

Keep certain medications and supplies in your home for coughs and colds, minor injuries and emergencies. Here’s a shopping list of the basics:

  • Acetaminophen
  • Activated charcoal for emergency treatment of poisoning
  • 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
  • Syrup of ipecac to induce vomiting
  • Thermometer

Take inventory at least once a year to replace items that have expired or been used up.

What is proper use of medications?

Don’t transfer any pills or liquids into containers labeled for other medications, and don’t share them with others.

“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,” Dr. Cook says.

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.

In addition, carry a list of medications — prescription, over the counter and herbal — that you take along with dosages, frequency and allergies. In case of an emergency, this could be extremely valuable in preventing drug interactions with other drugs, or supplements.

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