Spring: Clean Your Medicine Cabinet


Spring, the season of fresh starts, is a good time to open your medicine cabinet and toss out old drugs you no longer use—and any that have exceeded their expiration dates. How can you discard old medicines safely?

No Take-Back center nearby? Some old meds are best combined with coffee grounds or kitty litter or any other unpalatable product into a sealed container and tossing it into the garbage. Others can be safely flushed down the toilet. Find out which is best for each kind of drug from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Do I really need to heed expiration dates?

Since medicines are expensive, it can be tempting to keep them beyond their expiration dates. Indeed, some medicines may still be effective well past their “toss by” dates. In one recent study, researchers at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) found eight unopened medicines that had been stored in a pharmacy for between 28 to 40 years. The researchers analyzed the potency of the medicines and found that 12 of 14 active ingredients in the drugs were still found in concentrations of 90 percent or greater. That is, most of the drugs were still potent decades after their expiration dates.

“An expiration date on a medicine means that’s how long a manufacturer guarantees that a drug is safe and effective,” says study head Lee Cantrell, PharmD, professor of pharmacy and medicine at UCSF. “After that date, the manufacturer no longer backs their product and if you take it, you are on your own.” The message of the study, he says, is not that people should take expired medicine, but that manufacturers need to re-examine how they set expiration dates.

Until that happens, however, experts at the FDA and major medical groups recommend tossing medicines that have exceeded their expiration dates. That’s especially important for antibiotics, any children’s medicines, and any life-saving medicines, such as Epi-pens or nitroglycerin.

Are your medicines stored safely? 

The long-lasting drugs in the UCSF study were stored unopened and under optimal conditions. In real life, heat, humidity, exposure to sunlight and other factors can cause medicines to degrade even before their expiration dates. Tell-tale signs that a medicine is past its prime:

  • An unusual smell develops. Old aspirin, for example, can sometimes smell like vinegar. Don’t take it.
  • An odd color. If a drug’s color changes it may not be safe to take.
  • The consistency changes. Pills crumble easily, ointments or creams separate.

“Despite its name, a medicine cabinet is not always the best place to keep medicines,” says Dr. Cantrell. “They are often in steamy bathrooms, which exposes the drugs to heat and humidity, and most medicine cabinets are not locked, making them a potential hazard for children.”

Toss the medicine cabinet too?

A better idea may a closet in a hallway—if you have young children, store medicines on the top shelf out of reach, or even better, locked away. Your pharmacist may have other suggestions on safe ways to store prescription medicines.

What about the medicine chest? It’s a great place to store your comb, brush, dental floss, shaving cream and other personal items. After all, they don’t have expiration dates.

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