An annual exam for the medicine cabinet

By By Michael Bukach, R.Ph.

From scouring cupboards and closets, to scheduling annual exams and checkups, don’t forget to assess the often-overlooked medicine cabinet when conducting your annual list of to-dos.

Contrary to what you’ll find in most homes, a bathroom medicine cabinet and the space next to the kitchen sink are not good places to keep over-the-counter or prescription medications. Showers, baths and even direct sunlight can create heat and humidity that can cause some drugs to deteriorate rapidly. A cool, dark and dry place, such as the top of a linen closet, is a much more suitable place for medications.

In addition to where you keep your medications, how long you keep them also plays a vital role. Expired medications and old eye, ear and nose drops past their prime can make you sick. If you go through all the bottles and pills in your medicine cabinet, you will probably find some that have expired. Often, a drug's expiration date is the point at which it has lost 10 percent of its potency. If you’re on emergency medications such as inhalers and chest pain treatments, this 10 percent is important to keeping you healthy. While some drugs become ineffective over time, expired drugs also can prove harmful, such as with the antibiotic known as tetracycline, which can actually degrade into harmful by-products.

Know your medicines. Always read and compare labels. And consult your doctor or pharmacist if you have any questions.

If outdated prescriptions and unmarked pill bottles are plaguing your medicine cabinets, take a few moments to look over these general guidelines:

• Medicines are best kept in a cool, dry place away from sunlight. The bathroom or kitchen is the worst place, because the temperature is constantly changing and the humidity can break down or alter tablets.

• Check expiration dates periodically, and especially before use.

• Follow the directions and read the label on all medicines before taking. Make sure you know how to administer the medication properly.

• Finish all prescribed medications completely and don’t share prescribed medicines, regardless of symptoms. What is good for you may hurt others.

• Be aware of drug interactions with alcohol.

• Invest in a pill organizer to keep you on track with your medications.

• Bring a written list of all the medications you’re on when you see your regular doctor; he or she can then ensure there are no harmful drug interactions if you’ve been seeing several specialists.

• Plan ahead and keep common medicines on hand — the last thing you want to do when sick is go to the store.

• Consult with your pharmacist — If you identify outdated medications, never flush them down a toilet; rather, consult with your pharmacist on how to dispose of them in a safe and environmentally-friendly way.

In addition to your prescription medications, the Food and Drug Administration also recommends stocking fresh supplies of adhesive bandages and tape, gauze, tweezers, alcohol wipes, thermometer and measuring spoon in your medicine cabinet. Common pain relievers, antibiotic ointments, antacids and antihistamines are best stored outside of the bathroom medicine cabinet.

Michael Bukach, R.Ph., is the senior vice president of pharmacy operations and network services at Universal American, which has operations in Maine.