On Tuesday, Aug 16, 2011, ABC News aired a story about what amounts to the worst possible place to store your medications.   For those of you who didn’t see the story, it comes down to a couple of things that wreak havoc on both prescription and over the counter (OTC) medications.  These two enemies of modern medicine?  Heat and humidity.

Of course, there are other things to watch out for, like medicines that pass the expiration dates, or giving (taking) medication in a different manner than which it is intended.   I’ll talk about those later.

Back to safe storage.  The single worst place to store medicine is in a car trunk, especially in the summer.  The extreme temperatures that a closed car experiences can cause medicines to break down and become ineffective.   In the ABC News story, they talked about a boy whose emergency allergy medicine (I assume it was something like an Epi-Pen) didn’t work the way it was supposed to when he needed it.  Because emergency allergy medicine can literally be the difference between life and death, it is hugely important to store it properly.  The same goes for any other medication, although they might not be quite as immediately important as an Epi-Pen.

Heat and humidity are also big culprits in medicine going bad in the bathroom medicine cabinet.  Think about it:  You get in the shower, turn the water on, and what happens to the mirrors?  They fog up from the hot steam that the shower produces.  This heat and humidity greatly increase the chemical breakdown of various drugs, causing them to become ineffective.  If you don’t believe me, leave a bottle of aspirin (make sure it’s aspirin for this little experiment) open in the bathroom and take a shower.  Close the bottle up for a couple of days, and open it again.  Your nose will be assaulted by a smell similar to vinegar.  That’s the active ingredient (acetylsalycilic acid) going through a chemical process that destroys it, making it ineffective.

Similar reactions happen with other medicines, but this is the easiest one to demonstrate this with.  Heat also causes drug chemicals to undergo reactions that change them, which makes them less effective or totally ineffective.  That’s what happened with the kid and his Epi-Pen.  Storing it in the hot trunk of the car for extended lengths of time essentially “broke” the medicine so that it didn’t work right. Now, most drugs will just lose efficacy, but this can be downright dangerous.  I do not know of any drugs that become actually dangerous on their own as they go bad.  As far as I know, the danger comes from them losing power.

As I mentioned above, it is important to make sure that the medicines that you keep in your house do not pass their expiration dates.  Once they pass that date, they can no longer be counted on to provide the relief that they were bought for.  Think of the expiration date of a “use by” date like you see on a jar of mayo.  Also, you should not keep prescription medications around the house once you finish the course of treatment that they were given for.  This is particularly important with antibiotics, because you should finish them all, every time you are given them!  Failure to take antibiotics for the full course of treatment leads to drug-resistant strains of bacteria, like the dreaded MRSA (which can happen anywhere.  I have had 4 MRSA infections in my house in the last year. 🙁  )and the less-known VRE, which usually happens in hospitals.

A better place to keep medication would actually be on a kitchen counter or in a cabinet.  These are less likely to have the extreme variations of heat and high humidity.  When you need to get rid of leftover prescription medicines, DO NOT FLUSH THEM!   Rather, mix them in a bag with very wet coffee grounds and put the resulting mess in your kitchen garbage.  Some communities hold periodic medicine collection events, so you might want to check with your local health department or your pharmacy to see what the local recommendation is.

Keep your medicine comfortable (if you’re comfortable, your meds should be fine) and dry.  Take them exactly as directed, and properly dispose of unused or out-of-date medicines.

This has been a public service announcement by your friendly Family Preparedness advisor. 😀

Stay safe