With the beginning of another year coming up, it's the perfect time to go through your medicine cabinet and figure out what to keep, and what you need to replace. Most people are surprised to find that when they go through their cabinets, they find over-the-counter medication that is long past the expiration date. Lots of times bargain hunters (myself included) will go for the big bottle of OTC pain relief because it's the cheapest per pill. However, unless you are a constant pain sufferer, or you have a very large family, the chances are that you won't finish that big bottle before it goes bad.
Many people believe that their medication can still be used after it is "expired", and that the manufacturer puts an expiration date on that shortens the life of the medication for safety reasons. This is only partially true. While some medications can technically still be used with a benefit after their expiration dates, in most cases the date the manufacturer puts on the label is an expiration on the potency of the medication, not a date of use for safety. The FDA requires drug manufacturers to determine how long it takes their medication to reach 95% of their original potency, and that is what becomes the expiration date.
Obviously with some medications, such as a tablet of acetaminophin for instance, it may not matter too greatly to you if you take the medication at 94% of it's original strength. The problem with that though is that drug companies aren't going to needlessly spend money trying to figure out how quickly their medications deteriorate after they've reached the 95% mark. Some medications could reach a third of their original efficacy within weeks, some months, maybe others years. Because that data doesn't exist, taking expired medication becomes a gamble.
Some medications should never be taken after the expiration date. Medications that are controlled, and need to be taken at a constant level should never be taken if expired. For instance, taking a less-than-effective dosage of medication could cause severe damage if the medication is life-saving, and could cause a dangerous chemical imbalance if the medication is taken to control mood swings. Children's medication should also never be taken after expired. Not only do children have under-developed metabolic systems, many of their medicines come in suspension form. Suspensions are another medication that should never be taken after expiration. They can turn rancid, or worse - grow bacteria after expiring due to the decomposition of the medicine. Finally, never take anibiotics after their expiration date. Not only does the decreased efficiency of the medicine allow a reprieve for the bacteria (which can make fighting it take much longer), but tetracycline - which is a very common antibiotic - has actually been proven toxic after it's expiration date.
Once you have made the decision to throw out your expired medication, you have to dispose of it properly. Simply tossing it into the trash can is no longer the best way to do this. Not only are there children and pets to think about (should the trash bag accidentally break), but if you have prescription medications to get rid of, there may be FDA regulations regarding how you dispose of your medication.
A popular myth is that flushing medicines down the toilet is the best way to dispose of them. This is not always true. There are some medications that the FDA has determined should be flushed down the toilet, due to the danger they could cause if someone other than the prescribed individual were to take them. The list of medications that are to be disposed of by flushing can be found here at the bottom of the page. This list is updated as needed and should be checked whenever you think you have a controlled medication to dispose of.
Due to concerns that the environment could be damaged if everyone starts to flush their medications down the toilet, unless your medicine is on the FDA's list, everything else should be thrown out in the trash, but with the following precautions:
First, peel off the label and destroy it. Although the chances of someone going through your trash and stealing your identity through a prescription label are probably not high, it's better to be safe than sorry!
Next, find a plastic bag and place the pills you are disposing of into it. If the trashcan liner does break, this will ensure that the pills don't fall out someplace where someone or some pet could accidentally eat them.
Now find something gross to put in the bag so that even if the bag was found, the contents are unappetizing enough that no one will want to take one. Good things to put into the bag are: used kitty litter, coffee grounds and rotten food (like that mystery item in the fridge that is growing a nice layer of mold).
If you have a small child, dirty diapers are the perfect place to dispose of old pills. Just drop them into the diaper, roll it up and stick them in a plastic bag as usual before dropping it into the trashcan.
Finally, put the empty medicine containers into the recycling bin.
If you had to get rid of a lot of over-the-counter stuff, don't forget to buy more when you next go shopping or you could find yourself making an emergency trip to the pharmacy the next time someone in the house gets a bad headache or runny nose!
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