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How (and why) you should clean out your medicine cabinet

Have you excavated your medicine cabinet lately? How many antiques did you find? Here's how to decide what needs to go, and how to dispose of it.
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Lynn Greiner, September 3, 2013 1:47:21 PM

Most of us have medicine cabinets or drawers stuffed with all sorts of pills and potions we’ve acquired through the years. There’s everything from over-the-counter medication like headache pills and cough syrup to prescription products, in tablet, capsule, liquid or other form. We get them, we use them, and then we stuff the rest on the shelf and forget about them until the next headache, infection, or case of poison ivy. But are they safe to use?

Your first clue should be the expiration date on the package. That date indicates how long the manufacturer can guarantee the potency and effectiveness of the medication. But there are some caveats: the date applies to the unopened original package of the product. So as soon as you crack open that bottle of acetaminophen or puncture the seal on the tube of antibiotic cream, other factors come into play, such as temperature and humidity (the bathroom is an extremely unfriendly environment for medications), and even whether or not you leave the cotton in the bottle (don’t – it speeds deterioration). And even if the expiry date is in the future, if the medication has changed smell or appearance, it’s safer to check with a doctor or pharmacist before using it. You don’t want to drip cloudy, bacteria-laden drops into a sore eye, for example.

Despite the fact that studies have shown that many medications are safe after their expiration dates, both the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Health Canada recommend an annual cleanout of the medicine cabinet to get rid of expired products. There’s too big a risk in not doing so. Don’t forget the products in the first aid kits in your kitchen and car as well – they tend to sit for years before you need their contents, but when you need them, you sometimes need them badly. It’s also a good time to look at those vitamins lurking at the back of the shelf too. Experts consulted for an article in Woman’s Day offer some great tips for deciding what to keep and what to chuck.

Old prescriptions need to go. If you took the medication as directed, you hopefully shouldn’t have leftovers, but if you do, don’t count on them staying effective til that next bladder infection or whatever. Underpowered antibiotics can fail to clobber all of the bugs, leaving resistant organisms that are harder and more expensive to kill. Furthermore, independent drug information site warns that some critical medications such as insulin and epinephrine may degrade after expiry, with potentially life-threatening consequences. Dump the old, and get a fresh prescription when required. It’s much safer.

Once you have that pile of oldies but baddies, the next trick is safe disposal. Health Canada recommends taking the expired medication to your pharmacy, which has methods of safe disposal available, or, if the pharmacy doesn’t have a take-back program, check with your municipality to see if its hazardous waste depot accepts drugs. Do NOT flush old medications down the toilet or dump them in the trash, where they may leach into groundwater – that water will end up in your drinking water supply. Do you really want your kids (or you) drinking someone else’s prescriptions?

Image credit: Brian Hansen/

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Lynn Greiner

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