Clearing out your medicine cabinet might be last on your list of priorities but doing so could eliminate unforeseen dangers. Many South Africans fail to get rid of unneeded medicines at home. According to a Twitter poll about 89% haven’t cleaned out their medicine cabinet in the past two years.
One of the dangers of keeping unused medication at home is that it often leads to misuse among teenagers. Another concern is accidental medicine overdose, which is surprisingly common in SA. Leftover medication is often used to self-medicate, but when the wrong combination of medicines is mixed to treat minor ailments, the consequences could be serious. Equally, in children, where there is easy access to multiple medicines, it could be fatal. About 40% of calls to the Poisons Information Centre at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital concerning children under the age of five, are due to the ingestion of medicines.
People rationalise and think that leftover medication, which includes vitamins and health supplements might come in handy someday, but before you know it, those medicines have expired and may cause more harm than one realises. After expiry, many medications lose their effectiveness, and some may even become toxic. It’s important to keep in mind that once a medication has expired, manufacturers can no longer guarantee the medication’s safety or efficacy.
A course of antibiotics should always be completed and never stopped halfway and taken again weeks or months thereafter when one feels ill again as this could lead to antibiotic resistance, which is difficult to treat. Expired liquid medication, such as life-saving insulin or injectable treatments tend to lose their potency and might not work well or at all.
There really is no point in hoarding medicine. You might think you’re saving money in the long run, but once it’s expired, it won’t be as effective, wasting your money, affecting your health and hygiene, and could even delay your recovery. To go about cleaning out your medicine cabinet, it is important to discard expired medications and even those that you’ve opened some time ago. Once opened, it is introduced to germs and the clock starts ticking on its shelf life.
Good practice is to write the date you’ve opened it on, on the product itself and to discard even general hygiene products a year thereafter. It is also critical to throw away any medicine or ointments that have changed colour, taste or odour, which might be due to too much exposure to sunlight or heat. Before disposing of medicine be sure to remove or scratch out all personal information from bottles and packaging to keep your medical information private. In addition, check that medical devices, such as thermometers, blood pressure monitors, nebulisers etc are still in good working order and always store medication on a high shelf where children cannot reach.
Avoid storing it in a bathroom cabinet, as steam from showers and baths can expedite their expiry. It’s best to store medicine in a dry, cool place. An easy way to keep an inventory of the medicines you keep at home and to ensure you don’t double up on medicines you already have, is to group them in categories, such as cold and flu medication, pain and fever, allergies etc.
When getting rid of medicines, it’s important not to throw it in the bin as this makes it easy for children or pets to fish out. Landfill sites also become tainted when people dispose of them in this manner. Flushing them down the loo is also not recommended as trace amounts can end up in the water supply and potentially harm aquatic life.
The public must be encouraged to rather dispose of medicines by contacting their local pharmacy to find out if they offer an environmentally-friendly disposal programme. Alternatively, go to your nearest hospital or clinic where they will place old medicines into their Bio Hazard containers for incineration. Patients can also contact their local refuse removal service which might have facilities to incinerate medication.
Essential treatments that should always be kept in your medicine cabinet include remedies for fever and pain relief, an anti-diarrhoea product, antiseptic solution, bandages and allergy medication. If you’re on chronic medication or choose to self-medicate, it’s important to find out whether taking more than one medication could have negative consequences. It’s best to ask your pharmacist for advice or download our BugWise app where you will be able to check for likely medicine interactions.
Nicole Jennings is employed as the Spokesperson and Corporate Communication Manager of a leading pharmaceutical firm, Pharma Dynamics.