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Health Information What's in Your Medicine Cabinet?
And What Should Be.

Of all the things you should keep in your bathroom medicine cabinet, prescription medicine isn't one of them. Surprised? You're not alone.

"Because it's called a medicine cabinet, it's a common misconception to think that’s where you should keep your prescriptions," says Jeffrey Nekomoto, DO, MPH, a primary care physician at Rush University Medical Center. "But in the bathroom, heat and moisture can decrease the potency of a medication."

It's better to store prescription medicines in a bedroom drawer or some other cool, dark place that kids can't get into and that isn't too humid.

Well-Stocked Cabinet
What your medicine cabinet should contain are first-aid supplies and over-the-counter remedies for colds, flu and other common illnesses. "Having the right items on hand when you’re sick or hurt can help you get started on the road to recovery more quickly," Nekomoto says. Must-have items include the following:

  • Different types and sizes of bandages, gauze pads and medical tape
  • Sterile cotton tip swabs to clean wounds
  • A thermometer
  • Hydrogen peroxide, rubbing alcohol and antibiotic ointments
  • Hydrocortisone to treat minor skin irritations
  • Over-the-counter acetaminophen, aspirin and ibuprofen
  • Antihistamines to treat allergic reactions
  • Decongestants, as well as cough and cold medications
  • Antacids
  • Scissors, tweezers and nail clippers

"You also want to keep your medicine cabinet organized and easily accessible in the event of an emergency," Nekomoto says. "Try not to clutter it up with unnecessary items."

Play it Safe With Medications

When it comes time to make use of the items in your medicine cabinet, whether you have a cold, an allergy or just a headache, you should always call your doctor before taking more than one medication at a time. "Certain medications interact poorly," Nekomoto says, "and that can make you sicker."

You should also consult your doctor or pharmacist before you consider taking a medication that has "expired." Required by law in the United States since 1979, the expiration date stamped on medication bottles and packages specifies the date until which the manufacturer guarantees the full potency and safety of the drug. It does not necessarily mean how long the drug is actually "good" or safe to use.

Medical authorities uniformly say it is safe to take many drugs past their expiration date — even 10 years after the expiration date, many drugs retain a good deal of their original potency. In fact, in one of the largest studies ever conducted, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found that of more than 100 prescription and over-the-counter drugs, 90 percent were safe and effective as many as 15 years beyond their original expiration date.

There are, however, some notable exceptions, including nitroglycerine and insulin. Antibiotics, too, should never be taken even a few days past the expiration date, especially when they are being used to treat a serious infection. "Not only do antibiotics quickly lose their potency, but some antibiotics can cause serious adverse effects once they have expired," Nekomoto says.

In addition, some medications will slowly loose their potency over time, such as certain blood pressure and heart medications. Taking these drugs at less than 100 percent potency can prolong your recovery or make a chronic condition, such as high blood pressure, worse. Your doctor or pharmacist can tell you which medications have a long shelf life and which do not. But if you have any doubts, particularly if you have a serious or life-threatening illness and it's imperative that your medication is at full strength, you should always err on the side of caution and throw expired drugs away.

More Information at Your Fingertips:

  • Rush offers a free brown bag program to help older adults manage multiple medications and avoid dangerous drug interactions. To learn more, call Rush Generations, a free health and aging membership program for older adults and their caregivers, at (800) 757-0202.
  • Looking for a doctor? Call toll free: 888 352-RUSH (888 352-7874)
  • Stay in touch with Rush with Rush Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and more.

Please note: All physicians featured in Discover Rush Online are on the medical faculty of Rush University Medical Center. Some of the physicians featured are in private practice and, as independent practitioners, are not agents or employees of Rush University Medical Center.

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And What Should Be.

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