Capsules, tablets, inhalers, liquids, injectables, and more. Medicine comes in many forms and serves many purposes. But one thing they all have in common is they do not do well in extreme temperatures.
Both excessive heat and cold can have significant impact on how well medications — both prescription and over-the-counter — do their job. While that might not be a big deal for a daily vitamin, the impact of a less-than-effective heart medication or asthma inhaler has the potential to be fatal.
Baystate Health’s Medication Safety Officer, Mark Heelon, explain the facts and offer safety guidelines.
Why safe medicine storage matters
All medicine comes with label instructions regarding safe storage. Most medicines should be stored at 59 to 77 degrees °F in a cool, dry place. That degree range is important. The chemicals and components of some drugs can be changed when exposed to different temperatures. For example, drugs that contain hormones (think birth control, chemotherapy drugs, anti-seizure medications, and antibiotics) don’t work as well when exposed to temperatures outside their recommended storage range.
In addition, moisture, like that found in most bathrooms, can cause some medicines to stop working as intended. Case in point, when blood glucose strips are exposed to humidity, they can actually give inaccurate readings. That means the less-than-aptly-named medicine chest in your bathroom should not actually be used to store medicine.
“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."
Also, medicine should never be stored in the sun.
“Medications do not tolerate sunlight very well and can lose their potency if stored on a windowsill," says Heelon.
How cold temperatures affect medication
It’s not just hotter temperatures that can damage medications. Medicine shouldn’t be frozen either.
For example, insulin, which is a protein, can become unstable when frozen. Even if you thaw it out, you shouldn’t take the insulin.
There’s no way to tell visually whether your previously frozen medication is still good, so it’s best to get it replaced.
What is the best place to store medication at home?
Simply put, medicines that are stored correctly last longer and work better. Knowing where to keep your medicine in your house can be critical to health and safety.
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.
So where is the best place to store your medication? It depends on the temperature your specific medicine should be stored.
Store most at room temperature. Most medicines should be stored at room temperature between 59 to 77 degrees °F, in a cool, dry place.
Medline Plus has some ideas for where prescription medications should be stored:
- A dresser drawer
- A kitchen cabinet away from the stove, sink, and any hot appliances
- A storage box in a closet
If you are unsure, check the label or ask your pharmacist for advice. In addition, always store medicine out of the reach of children.
If you do not have air conditioning at home, experts recommend storing your medicine in the refrigerator (depending on the medicine).
Drugs that require refrigeration must be kept between 36 and 46 degrees Fahrenheit.
“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.
How to safely carry medicine while traveling
Keep medicine with you. When traveling, never leave medications in a very hot or cold car, and don’t store them in your trunk. Ideally, all medicines should be kept in the cabin of your car while traveling.
Medications that require refrigeration, such as insulin and EpiPens, should be kept in a cooler with a cool-pack.
If traveling by air, keep medications in your carry-on luggage to avoid the extreme temperatures of the cargo hold.
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.
Ship medicine overnight. If you order medication, always, choose overnight shipping and make sure someone will be around to pick them up. If you work, have the medication shipped to your office to avoid it sitting on your porch in a hot mail box.
Can you take medicine that has been left in the heat or cold?
Maybe you left your medicine in a hot car or accidentally left it by a sunny window.
Look for changes. Always inspect medication before taking.
If medication is stuck together, appears “runny,” is harder or softer than normal, shows changes in color, or has a different odor than usual when opening the bottle, it may be compromised and should not be taken.
But remember, just because a medication looks normal, it still could have been damaged by extreme temperatures – hot or cold. If you have concerns, consult your pharmacist.
Safety beyond storage
There’s more to drug safety than proper handling. Here are a few additional tips for medicine safety:
- Use one pharmacy for all your medications.
- Always carry a list of your current medications, including herbal supplements and over-the-counter drugs.
- When you are prescribed a new drug, know when and how to take it. Repeat the instructions you have been given back to the nurse, physician or pharmacist who is helping you.
- Always speak with your doctor before stopping any medications, changing the amount you take, or adding herbal supplements.
If you have questions about your medication or safe handling, talk to your pharmacist.
Find a Baystate Health pharmacy.
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