Keep 'em Safe: Medicine Storage and Disposal

Where and how you store your medicine makes a difference

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

The bathroom cabinet may be convenient, but there are better, safer places to store your medications.

When you pick up that prescription at the pharmacy, the first step when you get home should be to store it properly. Medications are expensive, and you want to store them in a way that ensures you get your money's worth. You must also think about protecting others — no one wants to see a child injured because that pretty pink pill looked so much like candy.

"Medication is an important factor in our health and with a little common sense, can be kept safe and used by only the person for whom that medication is intended," said Travis Hale, PharmD, vice president and pharmacist at Remington Drug Co. in Remington, VA, in an interview with dailyRx News.

Skip the Bathroom

Although the bathroom may be convenient — after all, it is called a "medicine cabinet" — it's not really a good place for your medications. The heat and moisture common to a bathroom environment can make your medications less potent or make them break down and go bad early.

Storage Recommendations

Dr. Hale shared some important factors to consider when storing your medications.

"The two most important issues regarding medication storage that patients should be aware of (in terms of medication efficacy) are storing the medication in a environment with a consistent, non-fluctuating temperature in the desired range specific to the medication (most tablets/capsules are ok at room temperature which ranges from 59F-86F, and something like insulin or a reconstituted liquid antibiotic which must be kept refrigerated which ranges from 35F-46F) and an environment free from moisture (ie Not in a bathroom cabinet due to shower steam)," Dr. Hale said.

Instead of chucking your pills into the bathroom cabinet, make sure you take the following precautions:

  • Keep your medications in a cool, dry, dark place to prevent damage from heat, light, air or moisture.
  • Store your medicine in a cabinet or drawer with a child-proof latch or lock.
  • Store medications out of the reach or sight of children.
  • Keep your medication with you when you travel.
  • Don’t put medicine in the glove box of a car.
  • Don’t leave medicines where a pet could get into them.
  • Store medicine that might have street resale value or be attractive to addicts under lock and key.

Regarding medication theft, Dr. Hale said it's always good to take extra care to prevent it.

"I always recommend that one not openly discuss their medications with anyone, especially if they are commonly abused narcotic medications," he said. "It's usually someone you trust that pilfers your medications. Even if you think you have nothing to fear, it's better to be safe than sorry when it comes to narcotic medication. All it takes is one wrong person to find out what medications are in your cabinet & then it's just a matter of time before they find a way to get access."

Take Care, Be Safe

Even if your medication is properly stored, it may expire earlier than expected or go bad for some reason. You should not keep medicine beyond its expiration date.

If the medicine looks odd in some way — the color has changed, it smells bad or the texture has changed — don’t take it, even if it hasn’t officially expired. Nor should you take pills that have cracked, stick together, or seem harder or softer than normal.

"We all have medication in our cabinets that is nearing expiration or has expired and we wonder if it's still good to take," Dr. Hale said. "If the medication has been kept in a non-ideal environment, I would lean towards pitching the medication and buying an in-date product."

Dispose of Unused or Expired Medications

Once a medication has expired, it’s important to dispose of any remaining pills or liquid correctly. Don’t just flush it down the toilet. Some medications can contaminate the water supply or cause other problems.

In some communities, your local trash and recycling service or the public health department may have a program that disposes or unwanted medications. Your pharmacist should know if such a program exists in your area.

Safeguard My Meds, a patient education website, also makes these suggestions:

  • Take a medication inventory twice a year and check for outdated medicine.
  • Contact a pharmacist to find out how to dispose of the medicine, as different medicines require different disposal methods.

Other Suggestions

If the pharmacist says you can throw it in the trash, mix the medicine with kitty litter or used coffee grounds to decrease the risk of it being stolen and make it less attractive to animals. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends you deface or remove labels on medication bottles to protect your identity and keep your health information private.

Special Cases

A few medications require special consideration in terms of storage and disposal. For instance, although you can keep an opened bottle of insulin at room temperature for 30 days, the American Diabetes Association recommends you store unopened insulin in the refrigerator.

The FDA notes that inhaled medications could be dangerous if punctured or thrown in a fire.

If you have any questions about storage or disposal of your medications, contact a pharmacist.

Review Date: 
March 12, 2015