Improve Medication Safety in Your Household

When is the last time you cleaned out your refrigerator? Did you find anything in there that was questionable and needed to be thrown away?

What about your medicine cabinet?

Medicine cabinets are notorious for accumulating expired unused medications and nutritional supplements, and this can be problematic and dangerous for you and your family members. Cleaning out your medicine cabinet at least once a year is one of the best things you can do to keep your family safe and healthy.

Proper storage of supplements and medications

Heat, humidity, and sunlight are the biggest enemy of medications and supplements. It is essential to store your medications and supplements in a cool dry place protected from light, and out of reach of children. Freezing is not as big of an issue as heat for most medications, but the safest bet is to avoid freezing if possible unless the product packaging specifies otherwise. Liquid formulations tend to be more sensitive to freezing because water expands when it freezes potentially causing sealed containers to crack and leak, leaving them susceptible to contamination.

The following 4 locations are perhaps the most common yet worst places to store medications:

  1. Bathrooms: The use of a shower makes the bathroom one of the hottest and most humid rooms in the house, making it about the worse place to store medications. Unfortunately, this tends to be the most common location for medicine cabinets.
  2. Kitchens: Like the bathroom, kitchens tend to have more heat and humidity than other rooms in the house, making them less than ideal for storing medications and nutritional supplements.
  3. Purses / Pockets: Medications and supplements that are carried in a purse or in your pockets are subject to more temperature and humidity fluctuations depending on where you live, your lifestyle, and the time of year. It's often necessary to carry medications with you, so you should do your best to only carry what you need plus an extra day or two for emergency situations, and leave the bulk at home. Most pharmacies are willing to provide extra labeled medication containers to you for this reason.
  4. Cars/Vehicles: Your car is one of the worst places to keep your medicines and supplements. The only medications or supplements that should be in your car are those needed for emergency situations for specific conditions like asthma, low blood sugars, and allergic reactions - and you should replace them frequently, especially in hot and humid climates. Also keep in mind that prescription medications can be targeted for theft, so visible medication bottles could motivate thieves.

Is it OK to use expired medications?

There are essentially 4 things that can happen as medications and supplements age:

  1. Nothing at all - this is the "best case scenario" in which the medication is exactly the same as it was the day you purchased it. Unfortunately, this is also the most unlikely scenario and few products would fall into this category.
  2. They lose potency - This is the most likely scenario, and the consequences can be minimal to life threatening. In many cases, the active medication (or nutrients in the case of supplements) slowly degrades into harmless byproducts so when you take them you do not get the intended effect. If a medication is used for emergency situations, such as allergic reactions, asthma attacks, low blood sugar, or chest pain - it could mean a life saving medication doesn't work in the moment you need it most.
  3. They degrade into toxic byproducts - This is the worst case scenario. As we mentioned above, some compounds breakdown into other harmless compounds, but in some instances they can breakdown into harmful substances. One example is the class of antibiotics called "tetracyclines." Using expired tetracycline antibiotics can damage the kidneys and be potentially fatal.
  4. Microbial Contamination - Most medications and supplements are tested to make sure they do not contain any harmful bacteria, mold, or viruses and may contain preservatives that prevent microbial growth for a certain period of time. However, once a package has been opened, or if it has been improperly stored, there is a possibility that harmful bacteria and molds could be growing in them. Liquid formulas are particularly susceptible to microbial growth. Sterile products like eye drops and insulin should never be stored longer than recommended on the package once they are opened.

When in Doubt, Throw it Out!

If you ever have questions about whether something is OK to keep, or possibly bad - it's usually best to err on the side of caution. Medications and supplements may have visible signs that they degrading including changes in color, consistency, and odor - but that is not always the case and you should not rely on that.

Expiration dates are not required on certain products and therefore not included. Some products, especially supplements, do not contain expiration dates but instead include "best by" or "manufactured" dating. In these cases, it is up to user discretion.

Proper disposal of medications and supplements

The best way to dispose of medications, including nutritional supplements, is to take them to your local pharmacy where they will make sure they are disposed of properly. When medications are improperly disposed, they can end up in the water supply and soil, having negative impacts on animals and humans alike. Sometimes the DEA will host "drug take back" events across the country to help people properly dispose of medications, so it might be good to time your medicine cabinet clean outs with one of these events.

If you are unable to dispose of medications in one of those ways, it is recommended to at least add water, kitty litter, or used coffee grounds to the medication bottle to break them down and discourage anybody that might find the bottle from using the medication.

Reducing Diversion

Unfortunately, there are people that abuse prescription medications and will go to great lengths to find those medications. Medicine cabinets are popular targets for burglars and thieves, including friends and family members that you may not realize have an addiction. Limiting the amount of unnecessary and expired medications in your house is important for limiting diversion of medications into the wrong hands. Always keep your medications out of sight, out of reach from children, and if possible - locked up.

Accidental Ingestion and Poisoning

Child Reaching for Poison Medication in Medicine CabinetAnother major problem with the home medicine cabinet involves the intentional or unintentional poisoning. Typically we think of young children that may accidentally get into the medicine cabinet, but it is also a major problem for adults that may suffer from confusion, dementia, or visual impairment.

Cleaning out the medicine cabinet regularly can help reduce the risk of somebody accidentally taking something they shouldn't - whether a prescription medication, over-the-counter medication, or a dietary supplement.

Always store medications in the original container, or ask a pharmacist to provide you with a properly labeled secondary container if needed. Too many times I have seen people combining multiple medications into the same bottle and this is a recipe for disaster - especially if emergency responders are trying to determine what somebody may or may not have ingested.

Your Health and Safety are worth It

A major reason people tend to keep medications past their expiration date is because we understand how expensive they can be. While that may be true, it is not nearly as expensive as the results of taking something you shouldn't and finding yourself in the hospital, or worse.

At least once a year you should take the time to clean out the medicine cabinet discarding all expired products as well as products you know you will not use before they expire. Replace them with new fresh products that have guaranteed purity and potency to improve the health and safety within your household.

  • Pinnaclife-science-based-nutrition-kyle-hilsabeck

    Kyle Hilsabeck, PharmD., is the Vice President of Pharmaceutical Affairs at McCord Holdings and licensed by the Iowa Board of Pharmacy.  He completed bachelors degrees in biology and biochemistry at Wartburg College before earning his Doctorate of Pharmacy from the University of Iowa College of Pharmacy. Upon graduation, he completed a community pharmacy practice residency through the University of Iowa where he focused primarily on nutritional aspects of care including the use of vitamin, mineral, and herbal supplements.  He has taught courses for the University of Iowa College of Pharmacy on vitamins, minerals, herbs, and nutritional supplements and given many presentations on the subject as well.  He has a passion for improving patient care specifically with regards to the safety and quality of the nutritional supplements and health information people use. 


Disclaimer: These statements have not been reviewed by the FDA. These products are dietary supplements and are not intended to treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The decision to use these products should be discussed with a trusted healthcare provider. The authors and the publisher of this work have made every effort to use sources believed to be reliable to provide information that is accurate and compatible with the standards generally accepted at the time of publication. The authors and the publisher shall not be liable for any special, consequential, or exemplary damages resulting, in whole or in part, from the readers’ use of, or reliance on, the information contained in this article. The publisher has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of URLs for external or third party Internet websites referred to in this publication and does not guarantee that any content on such websites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate.