What better time than spring to take a few hours (or even minutes) to clean out your closet? This may mean getting rid of that sweater you haven’t worn in three years or those shoes you bought for the one outfit you no longer have. But what about your medicine cabinet? That often-overlooked cupboard in your spring cleaning regime may actually be the most important one to declutter.
Why should I clear my medication clutter?
Medication can play a vital role in treating conditions and diseases; however, when they are no longer needed, what do we do with them? Too often, the answer is nothing—that cold medication, pain cream, or extra supply of medication for an overseas trip may still be sitting in your house waiting to be disposed. But there are several risks here:
- Intentional misuse
- Unintentional use of expired or denatured products
- Unintentional absence of medication (such as an empty inhaler)
- Exposure to at-risk individuals such as children
Often, patients are prescribed medication for a condition that is only temporary, such as a rash or infection. As a pharmacist, I hear patients say they keep their medication in case they need it again in the future. But this may be more dangerous than beneficial. What you may think is the same condition may be symptoms of something completely different—it’s important to talk to a health care professional before you self-diagnose or treat.
It’s therefore important to ensure that both expired and unused medication are disposed of properly because keeping them can lead to accidental exposure or intentional misuse.
Why are expiry dates important?
It’s easy to forget or overlook that small printed date; however, using a product after it has expired means that it’s no longer guaranteed to be effective. Drugs and medicinal products are tested to see how long they can remain active. After this time, they may denature or chemically change, making them less effective or completely ineffective. So again, if you’re self-diagnosing and self-treating with medication previously prescribed, this may not only leave your condition untreated but could cause additional complications.
Which products have expiry dates?
Products are only as good as their expiry date—this is true for everything from prescription to OTC medications, to food and personal care items. Here are a few specific reminders:
- Antibiotics: Patients should finish the entire course of an antibiotic for the best treatment. If there is extra remaining in a liquid or cream following the prescribed dosage and treatment duration, it’s best to discard this product (unless otherwise directed) to avoid improperly self-treating down the road.
- Allergy rescue medication such as EpiPen is seldom used, so it’s easy to unintentionally let them expire. A helpful trick is to pick a specific time of year to check the expiration dates of rarely used medication to ensure that it hasn’t expired.
- Asthma/COPD medication: Like allergy rescue medication, asthma rescue inhalers may expire if rarely used. Again, picking a specific time of year to check the expiration dates will help you catch and replace expired products.
- Vitamins and herbals: Just because a product is natural does not mean it lasts forever. Be careful about stockpiling vitamins, herbals, and even personal care products during a sale, as you need to make sure you can get through them before they expire.
How should I dispose of expired or unused medication?
Improper disposal of medication can be dangerous. Throwing medication into the garbage risks them getting into the hands of kids or even animals. Flushing drugs down the toilet or throwing them in the garbage can also have environment impact, as it’s led to traces of pharmaceuticals in soil and water. Current levels are very low but as the use of drugs increases, this waste could build over time and have detrimental effects on our environment.1,2
You can return your medication to any pharmacy any day of the year—it’s one of the most convenient and safe places to dispose of your medications. Some communities may also have additional takeback medication programs.
What can I return?
You can return:
- All prescription medications
- Over-the-counter drugs
- Natural health products
- Inhalers and devices
- Sharps in appropriate disposal containers (such as Sharps Containers)1
So spring or otherwise—it’s important to check your home regularly for medications that are expired or no longer needed. Don’t hesitate to ask your pharmacist how they can help you keep your home safe from unused and expired medications.
Pavithra Ravi is an Ontario-based pharmacist. Practicing for 10 years in various industries such as long term care, compounding, and specialty medicine, her passion has always been the well-being and health outcomes of her patients.