Spring-clean your medicine cabinets, pharmacists urge

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— Would anyone even consider drinking milk that was two months past its expiration date? Certainly not. Yet many people take outdated aspirin and cold medications without considering the consequences. That can be an unwise or even dangerous thing to do.

Time takes its toll on medication by changing the medicine's chemical makeup and increasing or decreasing its potency. For example, the active ingredient in aspirin, acetylsalicylic acid, breaks down into acetic acid with the passage of time and loses potency. On the other hand, liquid medication can partially evaporate, making it more potent than intended.

"Taking outdated medicine can have serious consequences," Yampa Valley Medical Center's director of pharmacy Gary Haberlan said. "Outdated ear and eye drops may no longer be sterile and may cause irritation or infection. If the common antibiotic tetracycline becomes old, it can be toxic to your kidneys."

For medications that are taken at the onset of a condition, such as asthma or allergic reactions, it is crucial that the medication be up-to-date and potent. Heart disease patients who carry nitroglycerin for the onset of a heart attack need to be sure their supply is renewed every three to six months, Haberlan said.

"I'm always telling people how essential it is to finish the entire course of antibiotic treatment prescribed," he added. "When people start feeling better, they think they are over their ear infection, strep condition or respiratory bacterial infection so they stop taking their antibiotics. It's a big mistake to 'save' antibiotics for the future."

"People tend to think they paid the doctor for a visit, they bought a prescription, and they might need it again, so why not keep it?" said pharmacist David Bonfiglio of Bonfiglio Drug in Oak Creek. "Then, three or four years later, they'll take it, even if they've forgotten exactly what the prescription was for."

Mixing medications in a single container is also unwise, Bonfiglio said. It can create chemical reactions among the medications. Also, it's easy to mistakenly take the wrong pill if it's in a mislabeled container.

Bonfiglio pointed out that medications don't have to be past their expiration date to become ineffective. Heat and humidity can also affect the potency. Most prescription and over-the-counter drugs come in opaque containers that keep the light out. Bonfiglio recommended keeping medications in those containers and storing them in a child-safe, cool, dark, dry place.

No matter what the expiration date, if the medicine looks or smells different than when you first took it or if you are unsure of the expiration date, throw it away, the two pharmacists say.

A crowded medicine cabinet increases the chances of a family member taking the wrong medication.

"I recommend that everyone clean out medications that they're not actively using and either throw them away or talk to a pharmacist about them," Bonfiglio said.


Medicine storage tips
* Don't store medications in the refrigerator unless the label directs you to do so.

  • Discard the cotton inside the bottle as it can draw in moisture.
  • Don't store medication in the glove compartment or trunk of your car when traveling. These areas are subject to extreme temperatures.


Christine McKelvie is public relations director for Yampa Valley Medical Center.

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