The Right Way to Store Your Medicine

April 5, 2017 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

If there’s one place you’re most likely to keep your medicine, it would be your medicine cabinet, right? Too bad that’s the worst place to put any drugs, supplements, or medicines! In a damp basement next to a hot furnace might be slightly worse, but that’s about it. You see—while medicines are more resilient than we usually think—there are a few things that can damage them. The most common are heat and moisture. Which happen to be the two things bathrooms have in abundance, with all the showers, baths, and hair dryers. Luckily, once you know what to watch out for, safe medication storage is a piece of cake.

The Enemies of Medicine

There are four main culprits, when it comes to spoiling medicine: Heat, light, air, and moisture.

Light can alter the chemical composition of medicine. That’s why most prescriptions come in tinted plastic, which blocks out potentially damaging forms of light.

Heat can cause chemical reactions as well. Any medicines in gel caps are especially susceptible to heat, as the gelatin can melt and interact with the drugs inside. But heat can cause changes in other types of drugs as well—even if they aren’t as visibly obvious.

Oxygen also can interact with different drugs. This is the combo you should worry about least—we’re surrounded by oxygen, and most drugs have been engineered to hold up well in the air. Nonetheless, it’s a good idea to leave airtight seals intact until you’re ready to use a medicine.

And moisture can cause chemical reactions as well. To give one example, when aspirin combines with water, it forms an entirely different compound. One that’s sold as a corn remover—not something you’d want to swallow.

The Right Way to Store Your Medicine

Almost all medicine is meant to be kept at room temperature—somewhere between 50 and 80 degrees. There are exceptions—for instance, some drugs need to be refrigerated. But unless otherwise noted, assume that room temperature should be your goal.

Next, you want to keep it in a dark, dry place. While containers can protect from light, even those little brown translucent bottles will let in too much sun if a medicine is sitting on a windowsill with southern exposure for too long.

And, even if the chemical properties of a medicine aren’t harmed by moisture, long-term exposure can lead to other problems, like mold or mildew growth. Again, nothing you want to ingest.

Once you’ve opened a box or bottle, if it has cotton in it, throw the cotton away. That cotton can trap moisture, and create a mini-greenhouse inside a pill bottle.

It makes sense to take precautions out of the house, as well. For instance, don’t check medicines on a plane, but keep them in your carry-on. You never know what conditions they’ll be exposed to in the belly of a plane, or sitting on the (often very hot) tarmac next to (always very hot) jet engines.

Don’t leave medicines in a car trunk, or leave it for long hours inside a hot car. Both situations can ruin a drug or supplement.

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Likewise, if you have medicine shipped, don’t let it sit on a porch all day. If you need to, have it sent to your office or a trusted neighbor. The less exposure to uncontrolled environments—which often have extreme temperatures, not to mention the chance of precipitation—the better.

Finally, even if you believe you’ve done everything right, always do a visual check as well. If some of your gel caps are stuck together…or a pill is discolored or crumbly…don’t trust it. Most likely, something happened. Better safe than sorry—throw it away.

On the more positive side of things, you don’t have to worry much about expiration dates. In most instances, the worst-case scenario is an expired medicine will have lost some potency, but it won’t be dangerous.

You can go too far, of course. You probably should throw out that Tylenol from 12 years ago.

And taking ineffective medicine, while not harmful, isn’t helping you either. You shouldn’t hoard drugs for long periods of time—not only can they degrade, but your body and situation can change as well. Something prescribed three years ago might be dangerous with a new medicine you’re taking today, or a new condition you’ve developed. And just because you have the same symptoms, that doesn’t mean you’re suffering from the same underlying cause. In that case, the drug would be exposing you to a whole lot of side effects for no actual benefit.

In other words, don’t worry about an expiration date too much. But, at the same time, don’t hoard medicine for years on end. Once you’ve finished a course of treatment, you should get rid of your old pills.

Speaking of that—the best way to get rid of medicine is through a pharmaceutical drop site. But those aren’t very common.

The recommended safe way to get rid of old medicine is to throw it out in the trash. If you can bury it in coffee grounds, kitty litter, or some other unattractive garbage, all the better.

It’s not the best way to dispose of medicine. But, for most of us, it’s the best option.

Whatever you do, don’t flush medicine down the toilet, or send it down the drain. There are exceptions—which will be noted on prescription bottles—but the last thing you want to do is add dangerous drugs to the water supply. No water treatment plant can deal with them—and drugs in our water is a growing problem.

Instead, make sure you treat your medicines and supplements with respect. That means keeping them in their original containers, in a dark, dry place. It means using them for their intended purpose only, and getting rid of them safely when their usefulness has passed.

Surrounded by pharmaceuticals as we are, it’s easy to forget just how powerful these drugs can be. But they are. Make sure they stay safe, by keeping them safe.

References

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