It's time to toss your expired medicines


May 03, 1994|By Joe Graedon and Dr. Teresa Graedon | Joe Graedon and Dr. Teresa Graedon,King Features Syndicate

It's about time for spring cleaning. We're not talking about washing windows or getting the cobwebs out of those hard-to-reach corners. Instead, head to the bathroom and open your medicine cabinet.

Actually, there shouldn't be any medicine in there at all. The medicine chest is dandy for deodorant, toothpaste and shaving stuff, but not so good for pills. Securing your medicine in the kitchen or bedroom -- away from heat, direct sun and children -- is better.

Heat and humidity shorten drugs' shelf life, and there's probably no place in the house as humid as the bathroom. Research on the seizure medicine Tegretol (carbamazepine), for example, shows it can lose up to one-third of its potency when exposed to humidity.

By the way, always remove the cotton from pills and vitamins. The only reason it's there in the first place is to keep the tablets from rolling around during shipping. Once the bottle is open, the cotton could accumulate moisture, so take it out.

Lots of folks use the medicine chest to collect all those little bottles so they don't go astray. And what a collection it can be! Most of us hate to waste money by throwing out pills we haven't used, especially when a prescription can run $60 or more. We hang on to them, thinking they might come in handy.

The trouble is that drugs deteriorate over time. They not only lose potency, but chemicals may break down into toxic byproducts. Tetracycline can cause serious problems if it goes bad.

That over-the-counter nasal spray you stuck up your nose when you had the flu may be contaminated with germs.

The eye drops that have been lurking in the back of the cabinet for three years might harbor bacteria after the expiration date.

All nonprescription drugs are now dated, just like a carton of milk. You may have to look carefully, but you should find it. Throw away anything that's past its date.

Prescription medicines are trickier. Usually the pharmacist labels them with the date dispensed, and you're left in the dark about how long they may still be good. A woman we know refuses to discard her favorite cough syrup, even though the date is 1968.

Here are some simple rules for cleaning out your prescriptions. ,, Don't keep old antibiotics. They should usually be taken continuously for a week or 10 days. If you have some left over, you probably didn't follow instructions, or you had a bad reaction. You surely don't want to repeat that experience, so flush the pills down the drain or return them to your pharmacist for disposal.

When it comes to other medications, a good rule of thumb is to discard anything that is one year past the dispensing date. And next time you get a new prescription, ask the pharmacist to put the expiration date on the label.

So before you worry about cleaning the cupboards, why not tackle the medicine cabinet? It could save someone's life.

Q: I am so frustrated. No matter how careful I am about my diet, I can't seem to get my cholesterol under control (total cholesterol is 248 and HDL is only 32). My doctor wants me to start taking prescription drugs to improve my cholesterol to HDL ratio. I already take so many pills -- propranolol and hydrochlorothiazide for blood pressure, Prozac for depression and Voltaren for arthritis -- that I hate to take more. My bills are already too high.

Is there any over-the-counter medicine that can lower cholesterol and improve my ratios?

A: Before you start taking anything for cholesterol, ask your doctor to re-evaluate your current medications. Propranolol and hydrochlorothiazide may negatively affect cholesterol. Prozac can also increase cholesterol in rare cases.

There are over-the-counter treatments for cholesterol including psyllium and niacin, but both require your doctor's careful supervision.

Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Dr. Teresa Graedon is a medical anthropologist and nutrition expert.

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