In fact, you should get rid of any medicines that are even slightly past their
expiration date. Nearly all drugs lose potency over time, so the longer you keep
them on the shelf, the less effective they are likely to be.
Even if some old medicine is still as strong as when you got it—and how would
you know?—you shouldn’t take it, because it might not be what you need now. Even if it is, you’re probably going to need more than the three or four pills that are left in the bottle. So discard them and go back to your doctor.
“You should go through your medicine cabinet at least once a year and throw
away anything that’s out of date or only partially used,” says Jason Joyce, Pharm.
D., Pharmacy director at FirstHealth Richmond Memorial Hospital. “There’s
no point in keeping out-of-date drugs, and they’re a hazard. You could get them
mixed up with newer drugs you’re supposed to be using.”
If your doctor prescribes a drug and it doesn’t work very well, it might be that
you need something else. But pharmacists say that it’s just as likely that you aren’t
taking the drug the way you should.
“There are a few basic things that everyone should know about their medication,”
Joyce says. “You should understand what it’s for, what the most common
side effects are, how often you should take it and at what time of day, whether
to take it with food or not, and whether to take it with other medications. The
more patients know, the more likely they are to be compliant with how they are
supposed to take it.”
John Walker, R.Ph., Pharmacy director at FirstHealth Montgomery Memorial
Hospital, says people should not hesitate to ask their doctor or pharmacist if there
is anything they aren’t sure about. For example, you might want to ask if it’s all
right to take a particular over-the-counter (OTC) drug, even something as common
as a headache remedy, while you’re taking a prescription drug.
“If the OTC drug has some of the same ingredients as your prescription
medication, such as acetaminophen, then you may be at risk of an overdose,”
Walker says. “So, if you aren’t sure exactly what’s in both drugs, check with your
It can be tempting to stop taking a drug once your symptoms are gone, but
that is rarely a good idea, especially with antibiotics.
“You need to complete the full course of antibiotics, even if you feel fine, to
completely eradicate the infection,” says Benny Morse, Pharm.D., a pharmacist
at Richmond Memorial.
Patients are sometimes less diligent about taking their medicines for diabetes
and high blood pressure, because these diseases may not cause any symptoms.
But if they aren’t properly controlled, they can lead to serious, life-threatening
“It is extremely important to follow your doctor’s instructions and take the
medication that he or she prescribes,” Joyce says.
Joyce advises talking with your doctor if you are having trouble taking your
medicine as prescribed.
“If the medicine is causing a side effect or if it’s expensive and you can’t
afford it, your physician might be able to switch you to something else,” he
says. “Whatever the concern is, you really should be communicating with your
Lisa Cutrell, Pharm.D., a pharmacist at Richmond Memorial, says patients
need to understand that it takes more than medicine to control some diseases.
“If you have high blood pressure or diabetes, for example, pills can help control
it, but it also takes diet and exercise and maybe other lifestyle changes,” she
says. “You can’t just rely on the drugs.”
The first rule of drug safety is to
store all medicines—prescription and
over-the-counter—where children and pets
can’t reach them. And when you discard
then, don’t just flush them down the toilet
or toss them into the nearest wastebasket. Contact your
pharmacy. Many pharmacies have drug recycling programs
and will take back your expired medications and see that
they are properly disposed. If your pharmacy won’t take
back your expired drugs, ask your pharmacist about what to
do with them.
Drugs should be stored at room temperature, unless
the label says otherwise.
“Heat causes a lot of drugs to deteriorate faster, so never
keep them in places that can get very hot, like the glove
compartment of your car,” says John Walker, R.Ph., Pharmacy
director at FirstHealth Montgomery Memorial Hospital.
If you keep your medicine bottles in a bathroom medicine
cabinet, be sure the lids are tightly closed. Otherwise, the
steam from the shower might affect the drugs’ potency.
People who take a number of different drugs sometimes
have trouble keeping up with which ones to take when. Pill
organizers, which most drug stores sell, can help. Otherwise,
you should keep all your medicines in their original containers.
“If you put them in another bottle, it’s easy to get them
confused with something else,” Walker says. “That can be
dangerous if you’re supposed to take one pill a day and the
label on the bottle says to take them three times a day.”
Pharmacists strongly recommend making a list of all
your medicines, updating the list whenever there is a
change, and keeping it with you at all times.
“If you have to come to the hospital, the doctors will
need to know all the medicines you are taking because
that can help them diagnose your problem and decide
how to treat you,” Walker says. “One of your medicines
might even be causing the problem.”
Jason Joyce, Pharm.D., Pharmacy director at FirstHealth
Richmond Memorial Hospital, says it is a good idea to show
the list of medicines you are taking to every doctor you visit.
“A physician you’re seeing for one problem may
not be aware that you’re going to another physician
for something else,” he says. “If they don’t know what
each other is prescribing, it can result in duplications in
therapy or drugs that interact with each other in a harmful