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Managing your medicine cabinet

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Updated on September 2, 2016

Everyone calls that wall-mounted fixture in your bathroom a medicine cabinet, so why is it the worst place to keep your medicine?

Your bathroom is a poor location for drug storage because it is usually humid and can be too warm. Both heat and humidity can cause medications to decompose and lose some of their effectiveness, or can even become dangerous.

The directions that come with many medications say to store them at room temperature. The bathroom can get hotter than the 65-to-77-degree range that is usually considered normal room temperature.

And then there is the moisture in a bathroom. If you have to wipe off the mirror on the medicine cabinet in order to see yourself after a shower, that is probably too much humidity for most medications. This is especially true for gel-coated tablets or gelatin capsules. Even regular tablets, such as aspirin, can react with excessive moisture in the air and start to break down.

A conventional medicine cabinet can also present another problem: Access is too easy. One of the first rules about medications is to keep them out of the reach of children. But most kids over the age of 5 (and some younger ones!) have figured out how to climb up on the sink or counter to get to the medicine cabinet.

Kids aren’t the only ones who should not get into your medicine cabinet. Anyone who comes into your home might check out your medicine cabinet just to snoop. That is bad enough, but the ongoing epidemic of prescription drug abuse means that they could also help themselves to any of your prescription medications.

Where is a good storage site?

So where should you keep your medications? Think in terms of a place that is dry, with no frequent large changes in temperature, and is away from light. If your kitchen has a cabinet away from the stove and the sink (heat and humidity again), you could consider using a shelf there for storage. But don’t choose a high shelf since heat rises. A drawer in a dresser in your bedroom might also do for storage.

Wherever you choose to store your medications, get a lockbox that can provide good security. The only medications that should not be kept in a lockbox are those that must be taken quickly or in an emergency.

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Clean out your medicine cabinet

Don’t completely give up on the bathroom medicine cabinet. There are many items, such as gels, creams, or ointments or first aid supplies, that are okay to keep there.

However, if the last time you cleaned out your medicine cabinet was when Reagan was in office, clean it out now. Take everything out and check each and every expiration date. Anything older than that date should be tossed. Throw out anything with a missing label and anything you can’t identify. Jettison anything that looks discolored or smells funny. Even petroleum jelly, which can last for years, can start to smell a bit off after a decade or two.

The items that you really need to throw out are any prescription medications that you didn’t finish. There is no good reason to keep leftover antibiotics. First, you should have finished the prescription unless your doctor told you to stop. Second, anything more than a year old has probably started to break down and is no longer effective. When in doubt, throw it out.

But tossing out medications does not mean that the pills can go down the toilet or in the trash. Medications can contaminate groundwater when flushed and can be hazardous waste in the garbage. Many pharmacies and hospitals offer take-back programs and will dispose of old medications for you. Many towns and counties also have special take-back days for medications.

Don’t just throw away your empty prescription vials, either. Use a black marker to cover up all identifying information or peel the labels off.