The Enemies of MedicineThere are four main culprits, when it comes to spoiling medicine: Heat, light, air, and moisture. Light can alter the chemical composition of medicine. That’s why most prescriptions come in tinted plastic, which blocks out potentially damaging forms of light. Heat can cause chemical reactions as well. Any medicines in gel caps are especially susceptible to heat, as the gelatin can melt and interact with the drugs inside. But heat can cause changes in other types of drugs as well—even if they aren’t as visibly obvious. Oxygen also can interact with different drugs. This is the combo you should worry about least—we’re surrounded by oxygen, and most drugs have been engineered to hold up well in the air. Nonetheless, it’s a good idea to leave airtight seals intact until you’re ready to use a medicine. And moisture can cause chemical reactions as well. To give one example, when aspirin combines with water, it forms an entirely different compound. One that’s sold as a corn remover—not something you’d want to swallow.
The Right Way to Store Your MedicineAlmost all medicine is meant to be kept at room temperature—somewhere between 50 and 80 degrees. There are exceptions—for instance, some drugs need to be refrigerated. But unless otherwise noted, assume that room temperature should be your goal. Next, you want to keep it in a dark, dry place. While containers can protect from light, even those little brown translucent bottles will let in too much sun if a medicine is sitting on a windowsill with southern exposure for too long. And, even if the chemical properties of a medicine aren’t harmed by moisture, long-term exposure can lead to other problems, like mold or mildew growth. Again, nothing you want to ingest. Once you’ve opened a box or bottle, if it has cotton in it, throw the cotton away. That cotton can trap moisture, and create a mini-greenhouse inside a pill bottle. It makes sense to take precautions out of the house, as well. For instance, don’t check medicines on a plane, but keep them in your carry-on. You never know what conditions they’ll be exposed to in the belly of a plane, or sitting on the (often very hot) tarmac next to (always very hot) jet engines. Don’t leave medicines in a car trunk, or leave it for long hours inside a hot car. Both situations can ruin a drug or supplement. Likewise, if you have medicine shipped, don’t let it sit on a porch all day. If you need to, have it sent to your office or a trusted neighbor. The less exposure to uncontrolled environments—which often have extreme temperatures, not to mention the chance of precipitation—the better. Finally, even if you believe you’ve done everything right, always do a visual check as well. If some of your gel caps are stuck together…or a pill is discolored or crumbly…don’t trust it. Most likely, something happened. Better safe than sorry—throw it away. On the more positive side of things, you don’t have to worry much about expiration dates. In most instances, the worst-case scenario is an expired medicine will have lost some potency, but it won’t be dangerous. You can go too far, of course. You probably should throw out that Tylenol from 12 years ago. And taking ineffective medicine, while not harmful, isn’t helping you either. You shouldn’t hoard drugs for long periods of time—not only can they degrade, but your body and situation can change as well. Something prescribed three years ago might be dangerous with a new medicine you’re taking today, or a new condition you’ve developed. And just because you have the same symptoms, that doesn’t mean you’re suffering from the same underlying cause. In that case, the drug would be exposing you to a whole lot of side effects for no actual benefit. In other words, don’t worry about an expiration date too much. But, at the same time, don’t hoard medicine for years on end. Once you’ve finished a course of treatment, you should get rid of your old pills. Speaking of that—the best way to get rid of medicine is through a
- Forer, Ben. Medicine Cabinet Is The Worst Place To Store Medications, Pharmacists Say. ABC News. Published Aug 16, 2011. Access Mar 11, 2017.
- Udesky, Laurie. Storing Your Medicine. Health Day. Published Jan 20, 2017. Accessed Mar 11, 2017.
- Staff. Storing your medicines. Medline Plus. Published Feb 6, 2016. Accessed Mar 11, 2017.