Why it’s not safe to hoard medicine

These five tips can help you avoid trouble

Published: January 2013

Within a one-week span, my patient, a 32-year-old truck driver, had requested that his prescription for sumatriptan be faxed to three pharmacies: a Canadian company he found online, his local drugstore, and his health plan’s mail-order pharmacy. It was not the first time he had asked for duplicate prescriptions, and I began to suspect that he was stockpiling the migraine medication.

Prescription drug “hoarding” refers to having three or more containers of one kind of medication that the patient is not expected to use within a reasonable time frame, according to researchers at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, Australia.

Although building a reserve of drugs may sound peculiar, one in-home study of people over age 65 found that 30 percent hoarded three or more prescription medications. Patients might believe that it’s smart to have leftover drugs on hand for a relapse or a rainy day. If you open your medicine cabinet and see more than one uncompleted or unused bottle of pills, these tips might help you avoid trouble. 

1. Don’t take expired medication. The drugs can be risky and harmful to your health. Over time, they can decompose, change chemical composition, and lose potency. The bathroom medicine cabinet may be one of the worst places to store medication, since humidity can accelerate decomposition. Inspect your pills; if they have an unusual odor, are stuck together, or are oddly shaped, they might be past their prime.

2. Be aware of recalled drugs. There were 1,616 drug products recalled in fiscal year 2011, almost double the 868 drug products recalled in fiscal 2010, because they were either defective or potentially harmful products. And from Oct. 1, 2011, to March 31, 2012, there were 1,194 such recalls. If you keep a stash of old drugs, you might not be aware that one has been removed from the market, and you risk taking a drug that’s no longer safe.

3. Complete your treatment. Antibiotic regimens are sometimes not fully completed. A Polish study found that of 4,192 respondents not currently taking antibiotics, 54 percent admitted having leftover antibiotics, and of those, 77 percent saved them. Side effects are one of the main reasons for antibiotic noncompliance, but if you keep the pills, you might forget why you initially stopped taking them. And self-medicating from an old reserve of drugs can cause unnecessary treatment, which helps to fuel a rise in antibiotic-resistant strains. 

4. Speak to your doctor. If you are holding onto old medication to save money or, like the truck driver, because you are worried that you might have trouble getting it when you need it, talk with your doctor. Although there might be less-expensive generic alternatives, beware of online pharmacies offering cheaper deals for prescription drugs. According to an April 2012 report from the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, which accredits online drugstores, a review of 9,677 websites revealed that 97 percent were “rogue operations.” The Food and Drug Administration does not regulate Canadian pharmacy websites, so the drugs they sell don’t undergo the same scrutiny as those in the U.S.

5. Clean up your medicine cabinet. Follow disposal instructions on the drug label or patient information insert. Avoid flushing prescription drugs down the drain unless specifically instructed to do so. Ask your local trash-disposal service about programs that collect unused drugs at a central location so they can be properly disposed of. If you throw medicine out with household trash, remove it from its original container and mix it with used coffee grounds or cat litter.

Orly Avitzur, M.D.

Medical Adviser
Editor's Note:

This article first appeared in the newsletter Consumer Reports on Health.

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