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What’s in your medicine cabinet?

I really enjoyed The Medicine Cabinet Quiz article written by Melinda Beck and appearing in a recent Wall Street Journal. In it, Ms. Beck poses some questions about when and how to take medications commonly found in most medicine cabinets. For example, if you have a headache, should you take Advil, Tylenol or aspirin? While the answer to that question and the other six questions about cold symptoms, digestive pain and achy joints will surprise you, there’s plenty more to this story.

As a component of our spring cleaning effort, we recently had a look-see in the medicine pantry. What we found surprised us. A significant portion had expiration dates long past the manufacturer’s recommendation and some items that although we could figure out what they were, had been separated from their packages. I wondered if we had to unilaterally throw all this stuff out. It turns out that the expiration date on a drug does stand for something, but probably not what you think it does.

First off, if you have a medication with no expiration date, you can assume it’s REALLY old. Something I’ve always wondered about expiration dates. Are they really ploys by manufacturers to get you to buy new?  Since 1979, the FDA has required manufacturers to stamp an expiration date on their products. This is the date at which the manufacturer can still guarantee the full potency and safety of the medication.  But drugs don’t instantly stop being effective on the date. Instead, their effectiveness dwindles gradually over time. So what’s the real story? Here are some tips about handling medications:

  • Excluding nitroglycerin, insulin and liquid antibiotics, most medications last for years beyond their expiration date.
    Placing a medication in a cool place such as a refrigerator will help to extend their effectiveness.
  • Unused medications should always be placed in their original packages. That’s often where you’ll find the complete dosing instructions, appropriate warnings, etc.
  • The label on the bottle of a prescription medication is your authorization to be in possession of that drug. There have been countless instances at airports for example of medications being confiscated from pill boxes because the owner couldn’t prove they were allowed to have them.

By the way, it’s not appropriate to dispose of any medication by pouring it down the drain or flushing down the toilet. Water filtration systems  have limited ability to remove many of the active ingredients in medications. Think beyond fish and wildlife who receive inadvertent treatment for aching muscles. (ok, that’s just a joke). But it’s not uncommon to find traces of various medications in tap water. Most cities and towns have regular medication collection days where you can turn in unused medications.

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