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How Well Do You Know Your Meds?

Medication errors in the U.S. are common. The FDA receives more than 100,000 reports a year about suspected medication errors—and not all of those come from drug manufacturers or healthcare professionals. Some are from consumers who had a medication issue at home.


While the medication issues in hospitals get a lot of press, experts say consumers who do their part to understand medication safety and take practical steps to be sure their medications stay safe can do a lot to reduce the dangers at home.


Among the best—and perhaps most surprising—tips:

  • Take expiration dates seriously. While the myth and common beliefs are that medicines can be used after the expiration dates, you want to pay attention to expiration dates. Paying attention to expiration dates is especially important for medications that need refrigeration and for nitroglycerin medications used for chest pain (which are sensitive to light and air and must be dispensed in their original container).

  • Think twice about what you store in the medicine cabinet. For most medicines, a cool, dry place is better. Consider storing medicines in a dresser drawer or a kitchen cabinet (away from the stove, sink and hot appliances) and out of reach of young children who may visit or live with you. Heat and moisture, which most bathrooms have plenty of, can damage your medicines.

  • Keep medicine in the original container; remove the cotton ball, as it pulls moisture into the bottle.

  • In general, don’t flush old medicines (with some exceptions). Flushing used to be common, done to prevent accidental poisonings of children and animals who may find the pills lying around. Now, unless the label or patient information with a medicine specifically instructs users to flush the product, the Environmental Protection Agency does not recommend flushing, as sewage treatment plants may not be able to clean all the medicines out of the water, and the medicine residue could harm fish and wildlife. The EPA’s first choice is to take the drugs to drug take-back events or to follow the EPA household disposal steps. Consumers can check when the drug take-back day is in their location by zip code on the DEA site. If that’s not possible, the FDA posts a list of what’s OK to flush.

  • While consumers can use the expiration date on medicines as a guide to what to throw out and what to keep, what about other supplies, like bandages? They don’t last forever. One clue: If you see the box itself is showing wear, then the products inside are also wearing out. Probably the maximum time to keep bandages is five years.

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