All medicine comes with label instructions regarding safe temperature for medication storage. In general, most medicines should be stored at 59 to 77 degrees F in a cool, dry place, away from sunlight. That temperature range is important.
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 dangerous or even fatal.
Baystate Health’s Medication Safety Officer, Mark Heelon, explains the facts and provides medication storage temperature guidelines for safety. Learn why medicine storage temperature matters, how cold temperatures impact medication, what's the best place to store your medication at home, how to travel with medication, and how to know if you can safely take medicine that's been left in a hot car.
Why medicine storage temperature matters
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 temperature. So what is the general recommendation for medication storage temperature? Unless the instructions specifically say it needs to be refrigerated, most medications should be stored between 59 and 77 degrees F, in a cool, dry place, away from sunlight.
Heelon tells us, “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."
Medicine should never be stored in the sun - at home or in a vehicle.
“Medications do not tolerate sunlight very well and can lose their potency if stored on a windowsill," says Heelon.
Why should medicine be stored in a cool, dry place?
Moisture, like that found in most bathrooms, can cause some medicines to stop working as intended. For example, when blood glucose strips are exposed to humidity, they can actually give inaccurate readings. That means the less-than-aptly-named medicine cabinet in your bathroom should not actually be used to store medicine.
How do cold temperatures affect medication?
It’s not just hotter temperatures that can damage medications. The general safe room temperature for medication storage is between 59 and 77 degrees F.
Medicine shouldn’t be frozen, so be careful of leaving it in a car or other really cold place. For example, insulin, which is a protein, can become unstable when frozen. There’s no way to tell visually whether your previously frozen medication is still good, so even if you thaw it out, it’s best to get it replaced than to take the risk that it's ineffective or even dangerous.
However, there are some drugs that require refrigeration and must be kept between 36 and 46 degrees Fahrenheit. When in doubt, ask your pharmacist or primary care provider for instructions on medication storage.
Where is the best place to store medication at home?
Medicines that are stored correctly last longer and work better. Knowing where to keep medication in your home 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.
Where is the best place to store medications? Most medicines should be stored:
- at room temperature between 59 to 77 degrees F
- in a cool, dry place
- away from direct sunlight
- out of the reach of children and pets
Medline Plus has advice 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 keep medications stored out of the reach of children and pets.
If you do not have air conditioning or a temperature-controlled space at home, experts recommend storing your medicine in the refrigerator (depending on the medicine).
“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
Whether you're taking a daytrip or an extended vacation, safe medicine storage isn't just a concern when you're at home. Follow the tips below to ensure your medication is safe from temperature fluctuations 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 plane, keep medications in your carry-on luggage to avoid the extreme temperatures of the cargo hold (and avoid lost-luggage issues!).
Be prepared. Call ahead to confirm that your hotel or short-term rental has a refrigerator. 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 by mail, always choose overnight shipping and make sure someone will be around to pick them up. If you work outside the home, have the medication shipped to your office to avoid it sitting on your porch or in a hot mailbox.
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. How do you know if the medication is safe to take? Look for changes. Always inspect medication before taking it. 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, even if a medication looks and smells normal, it still could have been damaged by extreme temperatures — hot or cold. If you have concerns, consult your pharmacist.
If you have questions about your medication instructions or safe storage, talk to your pharmacist.