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Give Your Medicine Cabinet a Makeover

End of year is good time for safely disposing expired medications

A woman peers into a medicine cabinet filled with prescriptions and beauty items.

by Wendy Hendricks, Pharm.D.

It’s 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 beyond their expiration dates can be deadly.

If it's expired, toss 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 infection if taken after it expires. Go through your cabinet now and pull out any medications that are past their expiration date.

If you find a medication that doesn’t have a date on it and you can’t 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. Children and pets can get to them — if not in your house, then possibly in outdoor trash receptacles.

Flushing them down the toilet may also be an option, but this can be risky as it may introduce medications into the water supply. A better option is to take them to a pharmacy, where they can be disposed of as medical waste.

Safer storage solutions

While you’re cleaning out your medicine cabinet, take a minute to decide if that’s 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, as it can cause 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.

It’s amazing how children manage to find things they’re not supposed to, and in this case, the results can be tragic. Keep medications away from curious hands in a locked, tackle-type box to prevent accidental overdoses.

Stock up on medicine cabinet basics

It’s a good idea to 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

Once you’ve got your medicine supply stocked and organized, take inventory once a year to replace items that have expired or been used up.

Be smart about medications

  • 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.
  • Don’t transfer 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 — 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, and not just with prescription meds. Even some vitamins and many herbal supplements can react negatively with common medications, cause unpleasant side effects or render them ineffective.

This Scripps Health and Wellness information was provided by Wendy Hendricks, Pharm.D., director of Pharmacy at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla.