Most people are drug hoarders.
It's not that I'm looking in my friends' medicine cabinets.
(Although do you remember the Seinfeld episode related to that? Jerry goes to the bathroom and peeks in his girlfriend's medicine cabinet to see a fungus medication. Jerry immediately looks for an excuse to leave, and lies to her, saying he is coming down with something and runs out).
People hold on to their partially-used medication bottles and tubes for all kinds of reasons. Some keep leftover antibiotics, just in case. Some have their dosages change and, with the cost of drugs, can't bear to throw away the previous bottle: maybe it will be needed down the road?
Prescription drugs are valuable. They're usually expensive and hard to get when you need them. Whether it's codeine cough syrup from three years ago (I admit I'm holding on to my last three ounces of Hycodan because it's the only thing that works for a bad cough) or unused pain pills from your teenager's wisdom tooth surgery, you may be storing drug cast-offs just in case you can save yourself a trip to the doctor or urgent care center every once in a while.
When I was in Argentina a couple of years ago, I bought zithromycin, (Z-pac), a very handy broad- spectrum antibiotic, at a corner drugstore just to test their "no prescriptions needed" system. I've hoarded it since. (And someday soon I'll write about how frustrating it is to me that Americans can't buy antibiotics over the counter but most of the rest of the world can).
There are, of course, lots of reasons not to hoard your drugs. But most of us will hold on to at least a handful. Here are a few tips to help ensure that your precious closet of old pills and other prescription medications doesn't end up creating problems for you, your family, or friends:
Depending on who lives with you -- or visits -- the presence of narcotics and anti-anxiety medications may be a big temptation. Even if your family members or visitors are in physical pain, they may misjudge the dose that would be appropriate for their size and their ailment. I would recommend getting rid of those medications if you don't need them, or putting them in a locked box.
Make sure everything is well-labeled. If your physician dropped your dose of a medication and you accidentally pick up the previous bottle, it could affect your health. If you want to keep previously-prescribed drugs, consider putting them in a separate area or their own box, clearly marked as a "library" of drugs from the past. That way if your dosage changes, you can "shop" for them there.
Pay attention to expiration dates. If you're unsure when something is too old, call your pharmacist to inquire. Most expired drugs lose potency. Don't guess.
Antibiotics are typically prescribed with a certain number of doses and days in mind. That "course" of treatment is necessary to ensure the bacteria will be completely wiped out, with no stragglers that can reproduce. It's important not to stop taking antibiotics just because you feel better or you have a side effect you don't like, such as diarrhea. But if for some reason you end up with extras, know that offering just a few -- not an entire course -- to a friend probably will not be effective and could be harmful.
Don't use your medication cabinet as the neighborhood drugstore. Of course you want to be helpful to your friends, especially in the off-hours. But you most likely do not know enough about someone's medical situation to safely hand out drugs from your hoard. This is true even if you're a licensed professional, say a doctor or a nurse. If it's over-the-counter and not expired, it's probably OK.
If you have anything in your hoard that once gave you a bad reaction -- especially an allergic reaction -- be sure to get rid of it.
For information on how to properly dispose of medications, see this FDA information sheet. You can also see if there's a drug-disposal program in your pharmacy.
Never take medications in the dark., not even Tylenol or Motrin. Always read the label and make sure it's what you think it is. If it's a prescription drug, be certain it was prescribed for you and has your name on it.
If you take medications that involve using a needle and syringe, be sure to keep them safely away from family and visitors. You never know who might be tempted to use them, even a child.
Pare down your stash. The more drugs you have in your cache, the more likely you or someone you know could make a mistake.
Remember that scene from the Seinfeld episode? Put away any medications that you consider to be personal or that might reveal a physical condition or mental health issue that you want to ensure is private.
Barbara Bronson Gray, who writes the blog bodboss.com, is an award-winning writer and a nationally recognized health expert. She's a regular contributor to HealthDay.com, preparedpatientforum.com and thirdage.com. Barbara has worked in hospitals, as a nurse and as an administrator, led a major healthcare magazine, created a website for WebMD, and served as a leader of global communications for Amgen, the world's largest biotech company. She continues to write and speak about healthcare and has a communications consultancy. Follow her on Twitter: @bbgrayrn.