Clean out medicine cabinets

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Start new year with fresh med supplies

By Greg Summers

The New Year’s resolution of “out with the old and in with the new” applies to that out-of-view medicine cabinet behind the bathroom mirror that you stare at every morning while brushing your teeth or combing your hair.

Like a refrigerator, medicine cabinet supplies pile up, often past their expiration dates, said pharmacist Hugh Mobley of Mobley Drugs.

And just like the refrigerator, a medicine cabinet needs to be cleaned out regularly.

This is especially true for those with prescription drugs that lose their potency after long periods of time. Mobley said any prescription or over-the-counter medication that is not more than 90 percent effective, per FDA guidelines, should be trashed.

“Most of the time, there is a lack of effectiveness as they deteriorate,” Mobley said. “Some can become chemicals that cause problems, like tetracyclines. You should get rid of it because there is not going to be any benefit from it.”

Pills stored in bathroom medicine cabinets often lose their effectiveness after constant exposure to heat and humidity.

Mobley said that kitchens and bathrooms are the worst environments to store medications, but that’s where most of them end up. The ideal place to  keep prescription drugs is in a linen closet or dark place with a low humidity level and a temperature somewhere between freezing and 80 degrees.

It’s also important to make sure that children don’t have access to them.

A three-year joint study by the University of Colorado School of Medicine and the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center in Denver found that 9,000 children had accidently ingested prescription medicine. Ninety-two percent of the accidental ingestion incidents happened at home, the study said.

But it’s a given that most medications will be kept in a medicine cabinet.

“Taking medications is just like brushing our teeth,” Mobley said. “It’s part of our daily routine and helps us become compliant.”

While some may think that airtight pill bottles will protect prescription drugs from heat and humidity, Mobley said that’s not the case.  

He cited an instance where his daughter’s cell phone was damaged by moisture and high humidity  attributed to having it in the bathroom while she showered.

“Water and oxygen are our best friends in that they assist us in taking medications, but when they (medications) are exposed to oxidation, they can be our worst enemies,” Mobley said.

“The same principle that applies to my daughter’s cell phone applies to medicines,” Mobley said. “The heat and humidity starts a reaction that begins an oxidation process that breaks things down. The bottom line is that medications are all chemicals. It doesn’t matter if a drug that comes from a natural source or is synthetic; the same chemical rules apply to them all.”

Safely disposing of medicines

Mobley said proper drug disposal has become an environmental issue. It isn’t a good idea to just flush them down the toilet or pour them down a sink where they can be absorbed into local wastewater systems.

He said modern water treatment plants aren’t designed to deal with medication disposal.

A few years ago, the U.S. Geological Survey found remnants of narcotic painkillers, estrogen from birth control pills, antidepressants and blood pressure medicines in water samples from 30 states.

Mobley said the long-term health risks that may result from small quantities of some medications dissolving into drinking water remain unknown. But the FDA still recommends that certain painkillers like Oxycontin, morphine and Percocet be flushed.  

“That’s like opening a can of worms with a lot of questions that no one has the answers to yet,” Mobley said

Many safety experts discourage throwing prescription medications into the trash, where children and pets can find them.

“But you don’t have many options,” Mobley said. He tells his customers to put them in a milk container, mix them with something like coffee grounds and then seal them in a plastic bag, where they can be more properly contained while they break down.

“Some healthcare facilities have incinerators on site and that’s probably the best way to do it,” he said.

What to toss out

Expired medicines – Expired medicine is dangerous and ineffective with no useful purpose.

Improperly stored medicines – Medicine that hasn’t been sealed or stored in the proper conditions can cause parts to evaporate or to alter which can cause them to be dangerous. Check for this and dispose of these potentially harmful medications.

Old prescriptions – If you have prescription medicine for an old illness, go ahead and get rid of it. It’s unlikely you’ll need it again. It’s better to go to the doctor and get a new prescription if the symptoms arise again, since new or improved medicines and other variations may now be available.

Duplicates – If you have 10 containers of the same medicine, throw some of them away. Especially if you don’t use them very often, the medicine containers will only create a mess that’s in the way.

Empty bottles – You will be surprised at how many empty or nearly empty bottles you will find. Throw them away and buy new ones.

What to add

The American College of Emergency Physicians recommends having these essential supplies in your medicine cabinet: 

– Adhesive bandages of assorted sizes (to cover minor cuts and scrapes)

– Gauze pads (to dress larger cuts and scrapes)

– Adhesive tape (to keep gauze in place)

– Thermometer (don’t use mercury-based thermometers)

– Alcohol wipes and hydrogen peroxide (to disinfect wounds)

– Up-to-date prescription and over-the-counter drugs

– Antibiotic ointment (to disinfect and protect wounds from infection)

– Antacid

– Antihistamine (for allergic reactions)

– Hydrocortisone cream (to relieve irritation from rashes)

– Decongestant (be mindful of dosages for appropriate ages)

– Acetaminophen, ibuprofen and aspirin (note: aspirin shouldn’t be taken by children or teens under age 19)

– Antiseptic wipes (to disinfect wounds or clean hands)

– Visit emergencycareforyou.org for more health and safety information and what to keep in a home first aid kit.

– Contact features editor Greg Summers at 283-1156.