Health Risk from Improper Medication Storage

Where you store your family’s medications could mean the difference between cure and relapse. Too much heat or humidity can alter the way a medication works, making them lose their potency. If a life depends on proper dosage of a specific medication, this could have serious consequences.

An article in The New York Times outlines the causes, risks, and solutions to improper medication storage.

Pharmacists suggest that most drugs be stored at room temperature, no lower than 58 degrees, no higher than 86 degrees. Temperatures above or below that range can cause medicines to physically change, lose potency or even threaten your health.

For patients with such chronic illnesses as diabetes or heart disease, a damaged dose of a crucial medicine, like insulin or nitroglycerin, can be life-threatening. But even common medicines can break down with potentially harmful effects, and you can’t always tell by looking at the pill or liquid that a problem has occurred, said Janet Engle, a pharmacist and past president of the American Pharmacists Association.

Examples of what can happen if a specific medication decays or undergoes other dangerous changes:

  • Antibiotics–if they decay, they can cause stomach or kidney damage.
  • Aspirin–can cause stomach upset (more than the usual).
  • Hydrocortisone cream–can separate and become useless in the heat.
  • Diagnostic test strips–like those used to test for blood sugar levels, pregnancy or ovulation, are extremely sensitive to humidity. If moisture sticks to the strips, it will dilute the test liquid and possible give a false reading.
  • Hormone pills–thyroid, birth control and others, are especially susceptible to temperature changes. These are often protein-based, and when protein gets hot it changes properties.
  • Insulin, seizure medicines and anticoagulants–small changes in doses in some medicines like these can make a big difference to your health.


According to The New York TImes:

  • Don’t store medicines in the medicine cabinet… or anyplace in the bathroom. The high heat and humidity of a bathroom is dangerous for drugs.
  • Choose to store medicines in a cool, dry place, such as a hallway linen closet, bedroom closet, or even a kitchen cabinet (as long as it is away from the stove.) If children have access to the medicines, consider storing them on a high shelf or in a lock box.
  • Packaging doesn’t protect drugs. Just because you haven’t opened the package doesn’t mean the drugs are safe.  HOWEVER, drugs become even more vulnerable to alterations if they are taken out of their original packaging. (It is okay to use a day-by-day pill box if necessary.)
  • When traveling, keep medications in a handbag or separate bag that you can carry with you. Even 10 minutes in a hot car can expose medications to dangerously high temperatures.
  • If you must carry emergency drugs with you for long periods or in hot locations, store them in a small cooler with a cool pack.
  • When you travel on a plane, keep the medications with you. Baggage holds aren’t temperature-controlled. Make sure to keep prescription medications in their original bottle or packaging (to make it easier to go through checkpoints).
  • If you notice that a medication has changed color, smell, taste, or consistency, don’t take it. Also, throw away pills that stick together, are chipped, or are harder or softer than usual.

Before discarding any medicine that you think may have been damaged by extreme temperatures, call your pharmacist. Some will replace the drugs free of charge. If the medicine was covered by an insurer, check with the company as well. It may reimburse you for a replacement dose.

Check with the manufacturer of the drug, too. Many have programs to replace certain damaged medicines.

And one last thing: If you do need to throw medication away, read our previous blog about the proper way to discard drugs. Click here:  News About Old Drugs

To read the full article in The New York Times, click here:  Mistakes in Storage May Alter Medication

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