Start the year with a medicine cabinet spring clean
Old opened and expired medicines can be hazardous, pharmacist warns
The contents of your household medicine cabinet could do more harm than good if the products are expired or have been open for some time. To ensure that your home medicine kit is safe and ready for the year ahead, it should be ‘spring cleaned’ at least once a year and any out-of-date or potentially contaminated items should be safely disposed of and replaced with fresh supplies.
“Medicine cabinets should be cleared out regularly, as certain types of medicine may degrade and lose their effectiveness over time, and may even become hazardous over time,” Gerda Potgieter, a pharmacist at South Africa’s largest national courier pharmacy, Medipost Pharmacy, advises.
“Examine everything, including ointments, supplements and vitamins, and discard any item that is beyond its expiry date. Discard any items that have changed colour, look as though they may have degraded, become cloudy or developed a noxious smell. This is most important because the chemical composition, and thus the efficacy or even safety of the products may become compromised over time.”
Many people do not fully understand how medicine manufacturers’ expiry dates are defined, leading to confusion over whether a particular bottle of medicine is suitable for use, she explains.
“It is important to note that the expiry date actually refers to the unopened product, and indicates that the full potency and safety of the drug can be guaranteed by the manufacturer up until this date.
“Once medication is opened, the medication may become contaminated. Taking a tablet out of its container, touching an eye drop bottle to your eyelashes or opening a bottle of cough syrup can result in air and germs being introduced, which voids the expiry date printed on the package.”
It is therefore advisable to discard any remaining unused medicine products that have been opened previously.
“Certain medicines are known to lose potency very quickly, and it is particularly dangerous to use medicines such as insulin, for the treatment of diabetes; nitroglycerin for the treatment of angina chest pain; and norepiniphrine, a treatment for anaphylactic shock, once they have expired.
Out of date preservatives in eye drops may allow bacterial growth in the solution, which could make the medicine unsafe.
“While regularly clearing out your medicine cabinet can help avoid your family taking medicines that may have lost efficacy or become contaminated, it is also a good idea to develop the good habit of checking the expiry dates on any medication before taking it,” Potgieter advises.
She warns against storing left over medicines in containers other than the original packaging. “If medication is no longer in its original container and you cannot remember what it is, rather play it safe and discard it. It is best to keep medicines in their original packaging to avoid possible confusion.
“Also, when restocking your medicine cabinet remember to retain the medicine package inserts, which provide details relating to possible contraindications, drug interactions and side effects, for future reference,” she recommends.
“Antibiotics should never be retained for future use, and one should always complete the course of antibiotics as prescribed by your treating doctor. Not only do they lose potency, it is essential that antibiotics are only taken for the specific infection as prescribed by a qualified healthcare professional. This is because if antibiotics are taken for the incorrect type of infection, they are likely to be ineffective and could lead to more serious illnesses and the development of antibiotic resistance.”
According to Potgieter, while many people store medicines in bathroom cabinets, this is not an ideal place to store such products since the temperature and humidity of the bathroom environment can reduce the potency of some medications.
“Rather store medicines in a cool, dry place out of reach of children. Contrary to popular belief, storing medication in a fridge does not necessarily extend the shelf life, as the humidity in the fridge may sometimes be detrimental to the stability of the medication. Unless the medicine packaging specifies that the particular product must be kept refrigerated, it is best to rather keep medicines out of direct sunlight, in a cool and dry place.”
Potgieter warns that any medication, including expired medication, can be hazardous in the wrong hands. “Medicines must be kept out of reach of children and pets, and anyone who may not be informed about their safe and appropriate use,” she says.
The safest way to discard medicine is to take it to your pharmacy for safe and environmentally friendly disposal.
“Throwing unused medicine away in the garbage or flushing it down the toilet can be dangerous, as landfill sites and water supplies become tainted with discarded medicines when people dispose of them in this manner.”
Rentia Myburgh, sales and marketing director of Medipost Holdings group, says that Medipost Pharmacy patients are most welcome to hand in expired medication for disposal, and can arrange for collection of such medication through our national courier pharmacy service.
“Medipost Pharmacy has made it easier than ever to restock your medicine cabinet and order everything from self-medication products and chronic medicines to ostomy and urology appliances, mobility aids, as well as continence care products, for delivery at the privacy of your home.
“Orders for appliances and self-medication products, which are those health products that can usually be bought without a prescription, can be placed online, via email, with a simple telephone call, or via SMS. Chronic medicine orders can be placed similarly by sending a doctor’s prescription through these channels, with an MMS or even via fax,” Myburgh notes.
“There is no time like the present for ensuring your home medicine cabinet is freshly stocked and ready for your family’s wellness needs for the year ahead,” Potgieter concludes.