The early days of the pandemic taught us the importance of having the essentials on hand. When it seemed too treacherous to step out the front door, we relied on our home stockpiles of things like toilet paper and everyday medication—and then when there was nothing to do but clean every nook and cranny of our homes, many of us realized that some of our medicine expired long ago.
While it’s easy to recognize that the crusty cough syrup needs to go, it can be difficult to tell when something like prescription medication, an inhaler or a bottle of aspirin is past its prime. Making sure your medicine is safe to take and properly stored is incredibly important for your loved one. At best, they could be left with ineffective medications, and at worst, they could be hanging on to leftover medicine that might be dangerous.
Stocking the essentials
The last thing you want to do is run to the pharmacy when you or your loved one is hurt or ill. Being prepared for minor illnesses and injuries can be incredibly helpful for things like seasonal allergies, colds, headaches, bites, rashes, minor cuts and burns, etc.
As you’re stocking your cabinet, keep the following money-saving tip in mind: Generic and brand-name drugs work just the same. According to the FDA, generic drugs are just as effective as their name-brand counterparts but can typically cost up to 85% less.
For fever, headaches and pain
- Aspirin (as in Bayer, most often used to relieve minor pain, fever and inflammation)
- Acetaminophen (as in Tylenol, used to relieve minor to moderate pain and fever but does not reduce inflammation)
- Ibuprofen (as in Motrin and Advil, used to relieve pain, fever and inflammation)
For congestion from colds
- Pseudoephedrine (as in Sudafed, used to relieve nasal and sinus congestion)
- Phenylephrine (as in DayQuil Severe Cold and Flu and Mucinex, used for temporary relief of stuffy nose, sinus and ear symptoms)
- Antihistamines (as in Zyrtec, Clarinex and Allegra) block histamine, a symptom-causing chemical released by the immune system during an allergic reaction. This medicine comes in pills and liquids, nasal sprays and eye drops.
For digestive issues
- Antacids (as in Tums or Maalox, used to treat heartburn, upset stomach, indigestion)
- Bismuth subsalicylate (as in Pepto-Bismol, used to treat nausea, vomiting and diarrhea)
- Laxatives (as in Miralax, used to relieve constipation)
For bug bites, itchy skin and rashes
- Antihistamine cream (as in Benadryl Anti-Itch Cream)
- Calamine lotion
For cuts and burns
- Bandages and gauze pads
- Medical tape
- Hydrogen peroxide
- Antibiotic ointment (as in Neosporin)
*Keep in mind that even over-the-counter medicines have side effects, so you should consult your loved one’s doctor or pharmacist before they take them, especially if they are also taking one or more prescription medications.
Over-the-counter drug shelf life
Most of us keep a bottle of pills or anti-itch cream in a medicine cabinet for years without giving it much thought. However, most over-the-counter medicines have a shelf life of around four or five years.
“Ideally, OTC medications should be kept in a cool, dry location away from direct light,” Norman Tomaka, media liaison for the American Pharmacists Association and a clinical consultant pharmacist, tells U.S. News & World Report. “A brightly lit bathroom where family members take steaming showers doesn’t pass muster.”
Tomaka notes the bathroom is probably the worst place to store prescription and nonprescription medications and medicines, and it’s best to store drug products at temperatures between 60-77 degrees Fahrenheit with no exposure to sunlight, bare lightbulbs or neon lights.
In addition to ensuring your medicines are stored in a dim, dry place, it’s also essential that medicine is out of reach of children. The CDC reports that about 50,000 young children end up in emergency rooms each year because they got into medicines while an adult wasn’t looking. The CDC recommends some tips for safe medicine storage both at home and on the go:
- Store medicines up and away and out of children’s reach and sight.
- Put medicines away every time.
- Make sure the safety cap is locked.
- Ask guests about medicine safety.
Safe disposal of medicines
It’s important to dispose of medicine properly after editing your medicine cabinet of expired or unneeded items. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration sponsors National Prescription Drug Take Back Day in communities nationwide, and many communities also have their own programs. Check with your local law enforcement officials to find a location near you or with the DEA to find a DEA-authorized collector in your community. Some pharmacies also offer on-site medicine drop-off boxes, mail-back programs and other ways to help you safely dispose of unused medications.
For individuals who cannot quickly access a drug take-back site, location or program, the FDA provides a flush list of potentially dangerous medications that should be immediately flushed down the toilet, as well as a list of medications that should not be flushed but instead should be discarded in the trash.