There’s a reason pharmacies guard their products behind a high counter, glass walls, a locked door and a staff of several pharmacists. Many prescription drugs, while conveying curative powers, carry potentially dangerous side effects if used incorrectly. So, when you take home prescription drugs, shouldn’t that same air of caution extend to your home medicine cabinet?

Yes, health experts say. Today, most adults take at least one prescription drug. More than 10 percent of adults take five or more prescription drugs on a regular basis, including 36 percent of people age 60 or older. Among a family of several individuals, that can make for a crowded and potentially confusing medicine cabinet when combined with over-the-counter pain medications, stomach soothers and cold remedies. It’s no wonder there are about 1.5 million medication errors each year.

Many errors involve taking the wrong doses, forgetting doses or missing doses. Almost 700,000 Americans are treated each year in emergency departments due to unintentional overdoses.

Choose the right spot to store meds

Establishing a safe place to store medications in your home will prevent errors and potentially deadly accidents. First, pick an appropriate place. Many people store medications in their bathrooms–usually the built-in medicine cabinet. That’s handy, but it’s far from the best spot. The warm and humid environment can degrade a drug before its expiration date.

Tips for safe medication storage and use

  • Be aware of all the medications in your home and where they are stored.
  • Keep medications in their original containers.
  • Remove the cotton plug from medicine bottles; leaving it in can draw moisture into the container.
  • Always think about children’s access. Don’t rely on child safety packaging to protect kids.
  • Keep the lids on your pill bottles tightly closed.
  • Never prepare medicine, give medication or take medication in the dark.
  • Read the label every time you take a dose.
  • Return a medication to its cabinet or box immediately after using. Don’t leave it on a table, night stand or countertop.
  • Never take someone else’s medication.
  • On the drug label, look at the section entitled “other information” for instructions on how to store the medication.
  • Clean out your medicine box or cabinet regularly.
  • Discard old medications or those that are no longer needed. Look at the expiration date, which may be marked “EXP” or “beyond use date.”
  • Do not flush old drugs in the toilet. Take them to a pharmacist who will dispose of them.
  • Dispose of capsules or tablets that are stuck together, are softer or harder than normal or are chipped or cracked.
  • Keep the phone numbers of your local pharmacy, poison control center and healthcare provider handy in case of accidental overdose or misuse.

Instead, select a cool, dry location. Consider storing medications in a linen closet or dresser drawer. If you store drugs in a kitchen, keep them away from the stove, sink or hot appliances. Keep medications out of the reach of children. More than 60,000 young children visit emergency rooms each year because of medication poisonings, according to the National Safety Council.

Consider purchasing a locked medicine cabinet. These cabinets range in price from $50 to several hundred dollars for a sophisticated model. Another option is to purchase a medication lock box or safe. These range in price from $40 to several hundred dollars. You can also store medications in a cabinet and purchase a cabinet lock. Cabinet locks are inexpensive and can be found in most drug stores.

Keep medicines in their original bottles

Organize your medications. Keep medications for each family member on a different shelf or box, for instance. Or keep prescription medications separate from over-the-counter medications or supplements. That will make it less likely you’ll grab the wrong bottle.

Most medications can be stored at room temperature. Check the package label or ask the pharmacist if you’re unsure about where and how to store the medication. Many liquid antibiotics and insulin require refrigeration. Establish a dedicated shelf in your refrigerator for medications.

Experts recommend you keep your medications in their original bottles. You can use a daily pill dispenser if you take a lot of drugs, but it can be easy to make mistakes filling the dispenser because many pills look alike. Instead, consider keeping pills in their original bottles, perhaps marking the bottles with colored tape to help you identify each medication easily. You can also keep a list or chart of your medications and affix the chart to the inside of your medicine cabinet door or in the medicine box or safe. You can create an easy-to-read medicine record using this program from the Food and Drug Administration.

Lock up controlled substances

Take special care with the storage of prescription medications that are controlled substances or have the potential for abuse. The theft and misuse of prescription drugs, especially prescription painkillers, has become a significant problem in the United States. Consider locking up these types of medications:

  • Prescription painkillers
  • Anti-anxiety medications
  • Medications for sleep

It’s best to properly dispose of pain medications once you’ve completed treatment. If you choose to keep prescription painkillers on hand for possible later use, count how many pills are in the container and keep track of the supply.

At least twice a year, take an inventory of your medications. Dispose of leftover medications that you’re no longer using. Never keep a prescription medicine on hand in case someone else in your family may need it. Check the expiration dates on bottles, including medications like eye drops, nasal sprays or eardrops. It’s important to dispose of medications properly to guard against environmental contamination and drug abuse. Talk to your pharmacist about how to dispose of medications or contact the Drug Enforcement Agency to learn the dates of the National Drug Take Back Days in your community.

Medications save lives and spare us from a great deal of discomfort. It only takes a little time to organize your medications and, in doing so, you’ll dramatically reduce the risk that you or a loved one will be harmed by products that are intended to help.


American Pharmacists’ Association, “America’s Medicine Cabinet” – | National Institutes of Health – AWARxE |

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