Give Your Medicine Cabinet a Check-up

by Karen Lee Richards, ChronicPainConnection Expert

What do medicine cabinets, smoke alarms and people have in common? They all need to have regular check-ups. You'd be amazed at how many prescriptions that expired years ago are lurking in the recesses of people's medicine cabinets -- or maybe you wouldn't be surprised. Perhaps you have some of those old medications that you saved "just in case." Well, now is the time to give your medicine cabinet a thorough check-up. Keeping old medicine around serves no positive purpose and may be inviting trouble

The Check-Up Checklist

Here is a checklist to help you ensure that your medicine cabinet is up-to-date and all medications are stored properly:

  • Medications should be stored in a dry location, away from sunlight. Although most people keep their medications in either the bathroom or the kitchen, those are actually two of the worst places for medication storage because humidity, heat and light can affect their potency and safety. A good location might be a high shelf in your bedroom closet where they cannot be easily seen or reached by children.
  • Check all medications, prescription and over-the-counter, for expiration dates and remove all that have expired.
  • Get rid of any medications that have changed color, odor, consistency, or that stick together regardless of the expiration date
  • Dispose of expired and no longer used medications properly. (See instructions below for safe disposal of medication.)
  • Remove any cotton fillers from medications bottles as they can draw moisture into the container.
  • Keep medications in their original containers, which are designed to protect them. Original containers also ensure that you have the necessary information on content, dosage, warnings and expiration dates.
  • If medication is no longer in its original container and you're not absolutely sure what it is or when it expires, get rid of it.
  • Restock your medicine cabinet, replacing any expired medications that your family needs to keep on hand.

Disposing of Medications

In the past, we were told to flush old, unused medications down the toilet to prevent the accidental poisoning of children or pets who might find them in the trash. However, currently the Environmental Protection Agency doesn't recommend this method because sewage treatment plants cannot always clean all medicines out of the water, possibly harming fish and wildlife. Check with your local government or ask your pharmacist about how to dispose of medications in your area. Many cities and towns have household hazardous waste facilities where you can take your old medications.

If all else fails and you have to dispose of your old medications in the regular trash, the Institute for Safe Medication Practices recommends following these tips prevent accidental poisoning and protect your privacy:

  • Keep all medications in their original containers with childproof lids attached.
  • Mark out the patient's name on the prescription container.
  • Place liquids in a sealable plastic bag in case it leaks or breaks.
  • Put all medications being disposed of in a sturdy container (for example, a plain brown box).
  • Add a non-toxic but bad-tasting product like cayenne pepper to the container.
  • Make this container the last thing you put in the garbage before pick-up.

Mark Your Calendar

Now that your medicine cabinet is clean and current, mark your calendar and plan to check it on a regular basis (quarterly or semi-annually). Once you've done the first big cleanout and gotten rid of years' worth of old medicine, subsequent check-ups shouldn't take much time at all. And the health and safety of you and your family is certainly worth the time.


"National Medicine Cabinet Safety Campaign." Senior Living Magazine. November, 2000.

"Throw Away Your Old Medicines Safely." Institute for Safe Medication Practices. 2004.

Last updated: September 30, 2007