Stocking Up on Medications for Winter Illnesses: Out with the Old, In with the New?

Winter is quickly approaching and many of us are visiting local pharmacies as we equip ourselves to treat common winter ailments. But what about medications that are left over from last year? Are they still effective? If we’re ready to toss these items, how do we dispose of them safely and without damaging the environment?

Unused medications often serve as a source for poisonings, abuse and misuse and can contaminate the environment if not disposed of properly. In fact, poisonings from medications occur every day and are more likely to be serious or fatal as compared to poisonings from household products. Children are particularly vulnerable, as they tend to be curious and like to mimic the actions of adults.

The abuse of prescription medications is also prevalent and is the fastest growing drug problem in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A majority of teens report obtaining prescription medications from medicine cabinets in their own homes or the homes of family members. To protect yourself and your family, take a few minutes to clean out your medicine cabinets.

However, unused meds are not solely a problem of the young. As we age, they tend to use more medications. The more medications you have at home, the more likely you are to confuse medications or reach for the wrong container. The elderly are most susceptible to this problem.

Unused medications also can result from changes in prescriptions or may be left behind. When a person become ill, it may be tempting to use these old medications or share them with friends or family members, but using medications for illnesses without the advice of a doctor or sharing medications is misuse and can cause significant problems.

For example, a recent case involved a well-meaning mother who gave a teenage family friend a prescription medication she had on hand to ease his pain following a dental procedure. The powerful narcotic caused the teen to quit breathing and he died. Though this was an extreme case, when it comes to medications, we should remember the words of Shakespeare, “neither a borrower nor a lender be.”

Studies indicate that medications may maintain their potency following expiration. However, the storage of medications in bathroom medicine cabinets can expose these medications to extreme and unfavorable humidity and temperature fluctuations. In fact, the bathroom medicine cabinet is one of the worst places to store medications. The kitchen is not good a good alternative. Instead, medicine should be stored in a locked box—a simple tackle box will do—and kept in a warm, dry location not easily accessible by children. In short, the best practice is to lock up current meds and dispose of those that have expired or are unneeded.

When it comes to medication disposal, experience has taught us that flushing them or throwing them in the trash can result in environmental contamination. So what do we do with them? Community take back events provide the best option for appropriate medication disposal. However, if your community does not sponsor such events, the next best option is to place the medications in a sealable plastic bag, add kitty litter or coffee grounds and some water, seal the bag and place it in an old butter tub or detergent bottle, and put it in the trash. This procedure minimizes the potential for leakage.

The Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center has a poison control center in the Texas Panhandle. Call 1(800) 222-1222 any time day or night at no charge and receive help if you have taken the wrong medication, ingested too much of your medication or have other questions about medications or medication disposal.

So as you prepare for the winter and its maladies, the best advice is out with the old. Before you stock up on cold medicines and antibiotics, make it a point to take 10 to 15 minutes to clean out your medicine cabinet – you could save a life!

For more information, visit

Jeanie Jaramillo, Pharm.D., is managing director of the Texas Panhandle Poison Center and assistant professor at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center School of Pharmacy.

Editor’s note: A Medication Cleanout is scheduled for Lubbock from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday (Oct. 29) at the Texas Tech Physicians Medical Pavilion located at 3601 Fourth St. This date is the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s National Medication Take Back Day.

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