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Are Your Medications Safe to Use After Hurricane Sandy?

Tim Boyer's picture

The first necessities following a natural disaster for people in affected areas such as those hit by Hurricane Sandy are shelter, food, and safe water to drink. However, depending on your medical health, having your medicine on hand or a refill immediately available can be just as critical as the need for food and water. In fact, news reports tell us that health-related websites such as RxResponse offers detailed maps and information for the public on what pharmacies in disaster-affected areas are open, where they are located, and how to contact them when disaster strikes and a person is in need of a prescription refill amid the chaos of a storm’s aftermath.

However, what if you already have your meds at home, but may have been exposed to water damage, excessive temperatures or contamination? Are your medications still safe to use?

To help people decide whether they should use their medications that may have been damaged during a disaster, the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER) at the FDA offers the following recommendations summarized below:

Drugs that were exposed to excessive heat or loss of refrigeration

Many drugs are chemically temperature sensitive. While the majority are recommended for storage at room temperature, this does not mean that they can survive near oven-like temperatures in a home that was on fire—even if fire did not reach the meds. Excessive heat can denature the active components of a medication and render it inert or less effective.

The FDA recommends that if your medications are ever exposed to excessive temperatures, then they should be disposed of and replaced as soon as possible. However, in times of disaster if a medication is critical to your health and it is not possible to get replacement meds, then it is recommended to take the medication if the container looks unaffected by the heat (such as a lack of scorch marks or melting) until a refill or replacement drug can be obtained.

If your medications are the type that require refrigeration—such as insulin for treating diabetes—and have been exposed to warm temperatures because of a loss of electrical power, they too can be adversely affected. In addition, even a relatively short period without refrigeration can decrease the shelf-life of a stored medication and alter its efficacy.

In cases where medications requiring refrigeration are subjected to warm temperatures during a blackout, the FDA recommends that they should be discarded and replaced with a new supply. However, again, if the medication is an immediately necessary life-saving drug and it is not possible to obtain a replacement, the FDA recommends taking the medicine as needed until a replacement is available.

In cases where a patient may not be sure if they forego taking a medication or if it may be too unsafe to risk taking, patients should contact their physician, the health department, the Red Cross, Poison Control, a pharmacist, or the manufacturer's customer service department for guidance.

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Drugs Exposed to Contaminated Water

Many medications come in containers that are neither airtight or leak proof, which means that if exposed to water contamination that damage to the drug’s efficacy can occur. Drugs that can become water damaged include not only pills, but oral liquids, inhalers, injectables and topical creams. However, it’s not just a matter of the drug becoming damaged and potentially less effective that a patient should be concerned about, but the possibility that the water was contaminated with bacteria or other harmful things that can cause disease or serious health damage.

The FDA recommends that all medications that are exposed to potentially contaminated water during a flood should be disposed of. In cases where the medication is life-saving and the medicine container appears to have been exposed to water— but the pills appear to have remained dry—a patient may continue to take the medication until a replacement can be made. If the pills appear to have gotten wet, however, do not take because it is likely they are contaminated.

Reconstituted Drugs

The FDA recommends that children’s medications that are reconstituted with water before taking must be done so only with purified or bottled water, and never with other types of liquids or water that is possibly contaminated.

For additional information about medication safety, follow this link to an informative article titled “Consumer Reports Explains Why Squirreling Away Medications is Harmful.”

Image Source: Courtesy of MorgueFile


U.S. Food and Drug Administration—“Safe Drug Use After a Natural Disaster”

The Partnership for Safe Medicines news release—“RxResponse Helps Sandy Victims Find Open Pharmacies.”