It’s not unusual for seniors to have accumulated a medicine cabinet full of medications – many of them expired. And that’s not really surprising when you think of all the prescriptions you get from various doctors over the years. Some don’t work, so you quit taking them. Some have side effects and you quit taking them. Others do their job — so you quit taking them. But do you throw any of them away? Probably not.
And that doesn’t even count all the over-the-counter drugs you buy! Prescription or OTC, keep in mind that they put expiration dates on there for a reason. Would you eat chicken that had expired last week? Nope. Some people won’t even drink a beer that’s past its “fresh by” date. So why are medications a different story?
My friend came down with an unexpected summer cold last week and woke up in the night coughing. Desperate to get some sleep, she rummaged around in her bathroom cupboard and came up with a bottle of cough syrup—that had expired in 2009. That’s only six years ago. No problem, right? Well, it turned out fine for her, but not everyone is so lucky. And experts will tell you – it’s probably not a good idea.
We all understand that expired medicine may not be quite as effective. Sure, but as in my friend’s case, any help with her cough was better than none.
Expiration dates aren’t totally random. Pharmaceutical companies use a formula that takes into consideration the dosage, the chemical properties, the type of storage required and studies conducted on the expired drugs. And the truth is, in many cases, the drug will indeed be just fine after that expiration date has come and gone.
But manufacturers warn that the active ingredients have likely undergone enough changes due to factors such as heat, air, humidity and light that their effectiveness could be compromised. Pharmacists say that a temperature increase of just 10 degrees is enough to double the rate of chemical changes – and in the case of some opened bottles, could accelerate the growth of bacteria very quickly.
There are a few medications to be extra careful with. One is eye drops. Expired drops are more likely to lead to bacterial growth — and you certainly don’t want to be putting bacteria in your eyes. Oral antibiotics are another one. They’re usually prescribed for a certain time period extending beyond the point where symptoms have cleared up. If expired antibiotics lose their effectiveness, they no longer have the strength to kill the bacteria causing your infection. But once your symptoms are initially gone, you wouldn’t realize that you haven’t been cured – until the symptoms flare back up again.
Another type of drug that needs more vigilance is anything used in an emergency situation. Expired EpiPens, for instance, may lose their effectiveness – not what you want if you’re having an emergency allergic reaction. The same is true for nitroglycerin tablets, used to treat angina. If you’re counting on an immediate response for sudden chest pain, you don’t want to be popping expired pills.
So here’s the bottom line. If you need a medication that’s expired and it can’t immediately be replaced, you’re probably safe to take it. The same is true of OTC medications such as aspirin or decongestants. They might be 100% effective – and even a less effective drug will be better than no drug. But… if your medication is for a serious or life-threatening condition, call your doctor or go to Urgent Care for a new prescription.
So the moral of the story? Go through your medicine cabinet or bathroom cupboards now. Pull out everything and check the dates. As long as you’re checking, you may as well be pro-active and get rid of anything that’s expired. Make a note of drugs that are nearing their expiration dates. If they’re something you use regularly – or like to have on hand “just in case” — then keep what you have, but get them refilled or buy a new bottle next time you’re in the drug store.
Next, organize the medications by category — cold medicines, sleep aids, digestive aids, pain relief, and emergency first aid for cuts, scrapes and burns, etc. Be sure that you’re storing them according to the instructions on the box or label. Get some small plastic baskets or clear storage containers to group similar drugs together.
What to do with all of those expired drugs you found? Do not flush them down the toilet! Many communities now have an authorized drug disposal collector in their area – often at the police department. Others have periodic collection drives. Go to www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/pubdispsearch/spring/main?execution=e1s1 or call 1-800-882-9539 to find an authorized collector in your area.
If there’s nothing set up near you, the FDA advises you to put expired drugs in your household trash – using these instructions. Mix the medications in with an unappetizing substance that won’t attract wild or household animals — such as dirt, kitty litter, or coffee grounds. Do not crush them. Put this mixture in a sealed plastic bag inside a larger garbage bag in your trash.
Then recycle the pill bottles – after you remove the label to avoid identity theft. But that’s a whole other topic…
And if you’re looking for a senior living community in Maryland, take a look at Lakeside At Mallard Landing. Seniors living in the Assisted Living or Memory care communities needn’t worry about expired meds. They’ll get assistance with their daily medications from trained health and wellness staff who take care to make sure you get the right meds at the right times – watching out for food and drug interactions as well as any side effects from newly prescribed drugs. And seniors in the Supervised Independent Living apartments may choose to handle meds on their own or get assistance from staff. It’s the best of both worlds for residents of Lakeside At Mallard Landing – where you can be as independent as you want while knowing that help is available if and when you need or want it. Contact us today at 443.331.5427 to learn more about our programs and amenities.