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Why Squirreling Away Medications is Harmful

Tim Boyer's picture

According to the November issue of Consumer Reports on Health, hoarding of prescription medications is very common and carries dangers with it that most people are not aware of. In one study, researchers found that 30 percent of patients over the age of 65 were hoarding at least 3 prescription medications in their home. According to health expert Orly Avitzur, MD who authored the Consumer Reports article, hoarding is defined as having three or more containers of one kind of prescription drug that a patient is not expected to use up within a reasonable time frame.

Personal reasons for hoarding medications include saving left-over drugs for a rainy day to self-treat should a common, chronic ailment recur and save a patient the hassle of having to go to the ER or an Urgent Care facility on a weekend. Some individuals tend to save remaining doses of antibiotics or anti-inflammatory steroid drugs in case a family member comes down with a chest cold that turns into bronchitis during the winter months. Others, stock up on extra supplies of meds through online websites or out-of-country pharmacies to self-medicate without having to pay for a visit to a doctor’s office. But possibly the greatest reason why people hoard medications is because many meds are so expensive it seems a waste to throw out any remaining unused pills.

Regardless of the reason used for squirreling away prescription medications, doing so is putting your health at risk. The following is a summary of advice and tips Dr. Avitzur has for patients who are guilty of hoarding meds and what they really should be doing to ensure that they are using prescription meds safely.

Tip #1: Don’t Take Expired Meds

In some cases, taking expired meds can be risky because over time the meds may decompose, change in their chemical composition, wind up becoming less potent; and therefore, could be harmful or ineffective during self-treatment.

A second point Dr. Avitzur makes is that most meds are kept in medicine cabinets in bathrooms, which typically are the most humid places in a home where the humidity can accelerate the breakdown of meds. She advises patients that expired meds (or even if a med is not expired), should be examined for signs of decomposition such as an unusual odor, odd shape, or stickiness.

Tip #2: Be Aware of Recalled Drugs

According to the article, in 2011 there were 1,616 drugs recalled that were found to either be defective or potentially dangerous—and the numbers of recalled drugs are continuing and increasing each year. From October of 2011 to March of 2012 another 1,194 prescription medications were also recalled due to health concerns. The message here is that by hoarding drugs away at home, you are increasing the risk of unknowingly using a recalled drug that may be determined to be harmful at a later date post its original prescription period.

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Tip #3: Complete Your Treatment

One study noted a common practice that many of us can identify with when it comes to taking antibiotics—not finishing all of an antibiotic and saving the remainder. In a study consisting of 4,192 respondents to a questionnaire, 54 percent admitted that they did not complete their antibiotic regimen, with 77 percent stating that they saved the unused portions.

Often, when taking an antibiotic, individuals discontinue taking the med once they feel better due to that many antibiotics are hard on the digestive system. Another reason is that some antibiotics are stopped when a side effect appears, but the medicine remains in a drawer or cabinet and the patient forgets that they had responded poorly to the med. The risk here is that the med may be used to self-medicate later with dire results as well as help contribute to the rise of antibiotic-resistant strains of pathogens.

Tip #4: Speak to Your Doctor

If the temptation to squirrel away drugs is due to availability while traveling or due to cost, speak to your doctor about coming up with solutions that are convenient and affordable for you. However, be aware that not all generics are the same or are safe--especially some that are bought online.

According to the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy—which accredits online drugstores—an April 2012 report states that a review of 9,677 websites that sells drugs, up to 97 percent were found to be rogue operations. Many of those where discovered to operate from Canada and other countries where the FDA has no jurisdiction to regulate the quality of the drugs.

Tip #5: Clean Out Your Medicine Cabinet

Make it a habit to remove temptation and expired meds that may potentially have gone bad by cleaning out your medicine cabinet once a month. Some med containers will contain disposal instructions; but if not, you can take them with you on your next trip to a pharmacy where they will dispose them for you. Never flush prescription drug down a drain or in the toilet. As a last resort, remove the meds from their bottle and mix them with cat litter box refuse or coffee grounds before tossing into the household trash to discourage anyone from finding and using them.

Image Source: Courtesy of MorgueFile

Reference: Consumer Reports on Health Vol. 24, Number 11 (November 2012); Orly Avitzur, MD.