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How to safely store medicine in the heat

August 12, 2019

You wouldn’t intentionally leave a candy bar behind in a hot car to melt.

Here’s something even more important to keep out of the summer heat – your medicine, whether prescription or over-the-counter.

The bathroom medicine cabinet isn't always safe

Moisture can change your medicine and cause it to stop working as intended. Medications should be kept out of the medicine cabinet in the bathroom and instead stored in a cool, dry place.

“Medications also don’t tolerate sunlight very well and can lose their potency if stored on a windowsill," says Helon. 

Helon also recommends avoiding leaving your medications on top of electronic equipment, which can often get warm.

So, what's all the fuss about? Why is it so important to store medicine properly?

Medicine you rely on can stop working or become toxic

If you have an infection, heart disease, or diabetes, the insulin you take to control high blood sugars, and the nitroglycerin you take for heart disease, and the antibiotics you take to treat infections can become less effective in high or low temperatures,” said Heelon.

Heelon also cautioned about the damage that can be done to blood glucose test strips, which are sensitive to humidity and heat. When damaged, these test strips can give inaccurate readings.

“As always, be sure to ask your pharmacist when picking up new medicines about the best way to store them, and also ask about other medications you may have at home that you are unsure about,” said Heelon.

“The less talked about impact of medications that are improperly stored and their potential to lose potency is that infections may not be cleared up and disease may linger longer if antibiotics are involved. And, serious systemic infections can lead to hospitalization,” said Gary Kerr, chief pharmacy officer at Baystate Health.

He noted that, more rarely, the medication can be changed to a toxic byproduct that could injure the human body, such as the breakdown products of tetracycline, a broad spectrum antibiotic, which can result in Fanconi syndrome – a form of renal (kidney) failure.

Warm, muggy environments can result in aspirin tablets breaking down into acetic acid (vinegar) and salicylic acid, which can irritate the stomach.

How to safely store medicine: 6 tips

Extreme temperatures (both hot and cold) can physically change your medications and affect their potency (how well they work), which can be harmful to your health, says Mark Heelon, the pharmacist who serves as medication safety officer for Baystate Health.

1. Store most at room temperature. According to Heelon, most medicines should be stored at room temperature between 59 to 77 degrees F, in a cool, dry place. Also, remember to store medicine in a safe place in your home outside of the reach of children.

2. Keep medicine with you when traveling. When traveling, never leave medications in a very hot or cold car, and don’t store them in your trunk. "It’s best to keep all medicines with you in an air-conditioned car. Also, consider a cool pack for medications such as insulin, said Heelon. If traveling by air, don’t pack your medications in your suitcase, instead, keep them in your carry-on luggage. Your medicine can be damaged when the plane reaches high altitudes.

3. Know how your specific medicine should be stored. If you do not have air conditioning at home, experts recommend storing your medicine in the refrigerator (depending on the medicine). Check with your pharmacist for storage recommendations.

4. Be prepared. Have a plan in case the power goes out. Some injectable medications, for example, need to be stored in the refrigerator. You may have a short window of time before the warmth makes them unsafe.

5. Ship medicine overnight. If you order medication by mail, have it shipped overnight with a signature required. Consider how long the package will sit in a
non-climate controlled delivery truck and in your mailbox.

6. Look for changes. If pills are stuck together and “runny,” harder or softer than normal, changed in color, or that have a different odor than usual when opening the bottle. Remember that even when medication looks normal, it still could have been damaged by extreme temperatures.

Learn more about pharmacy services at Baystate Health.