Before you leave the pharmacy with your prescription medication, take a close look at the label on each container. Make sure it has the following:
- Your name as well as the prescribing doctor’s name.
- The name and phone number of the pharmacy.
- The date it was prescribed.
- The name and the amount of the medication.
- Simple understandable directions.
- The expiration date.
- The number of refills, if any.
When you arrive home with your medication, be sure to keep it in its original container to prevent future confusion. An exception to this rule would be to put the medication in a weekly pill container, which is the best method for taking medication on schedule. These containers can be purchased at your local pharmacy.
You may dispose of the cotton plug often found in the medication’s container. Always keep containers tightly closed. When bringing a new medication into your home, take time to throw out any medication that has expired or has been discontinued by your physician. (Proper disposal will be covered later.)
Take time to read the drug information given to you by the pharmacist. This is usually a fairly detailed computer printout of things you need to know before taking your first dose. Reading this information will help you understand how often and when to take the medication, what side effects may occur, whether to take the drug on a full or empty stomach, and whether it needs to be refrigerated.
It’s probably safe to say that most people who have prescription medication are not aware of proper storage techniques. Heat and humidity are the greatest factors in the deterioration of stored medications, especially tablets and capsules. The medicine cabinet in the bathroom is actually the worst place to store medication because of the high heat and humidity. A cool, dark, and dry location such as a top dresser drawer or a high shelf in a closet is preferred.
Keeping them out of the reach of children is of utmost importance. Of equal importance is to keep controlled drugs, especially narcotics, in a locked and secure location. Do not store medication in the glove box of your car, as the intense summer heat will cause rapid deterioration.
What actually happens to medication beyond its expiration date? In almost all cases, the drug loses its potency but does not become dangerous or toxic. One notable exception to this rule is common aspirin, which breaks down to form acetic acid (vinegar) and salicylic acid, which are stomach irritants.
Regardless of the expiration date, if at any time you open a medication container and it either looks or smells different from how you remember it, either dispose of it properly or have your pharmacist check it for you.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series on managing medication. Future columns in this series will cover drug interaction with other drugs and alcohol, tips on traveling with your medication and proper disposal of unused drugs.