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Medicine Cabinet Makeover

Tips for Cleaning, Organizing & Stocking Your Medicine Cabinet

When you trudge sneezing, wheezing and bleary-eyed to your medicine cabinet, you don’t want to claw in frustration through a hodgepodge of bottles only to find that what you need is not there. And what you do find shouldn’t be so old that it might make you or a loved one even more ill. So now is a good a time as any to take stock of your medicine cabinet and get it organized! Follow these three easy steps and you’ll be equipped with everything you need.

1. Clean it Out!

First, out with the old. Take out all of your medicines and check the expiration dates. Toss any children’s medication beyond those dates immediately. And get rid of just about everything else as well.

Some solid oral medications—like aspirin, acetaminophen, and some allergy, stomach and flu pills—may be safe for use up to about two years beyond the expiration date. But do immediately toss any dated medicine in liquid, suspension or gel capsule form, since these lose potency faster and are more likely to become contaminated than their solid forms.

medicine pill bottles in blue background

If you’re hanging on to old antibiotics for convenience or to save money, you may be doing more than squeezing the life out of a buck. Toss them, as they are likely to be less potent or even toxic after the expiration date. The CDC reports that 91 percent of all unintentional poisoning deaths in 2008 were caused by drugs, and that unintentional poisoning deaths have been rising steadily since 1992.

Also throw away sunscreen more than three years old—it will be less effective. Get rid of anything unidentifiable and any medicines that have changed color, taste or smell. Lastly, check that correct dosages, expiration dates and other pertinent information on medicine packages are readable.

When disposing of medicines, exercise safety to avoid harming the environment. Do not flush them down the toilet unless indicated on package instructions. Medicines can be carefully thrown away using U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommendations, which entails sealing the medicine with coffee grounds or kitty litter in a plastic bag to throw away in the trash. You can also contact your doctor or pharmacist for help.

2. Get Organized!

Now get organized. Find a clean, cool and dry place for what remains. But guess what? That place is often not the bathroom, as the humidity and temperature change from showers and baths can make medications less potent. Ideally, medicines should be stored in a dresser drawer or secured box, away from direct light, heat and any moisture.

If medicines must be kept in the bathroom, keep containers closed tight. Also, do not leave the cotton plug in the medicine bottle, as it draws in moisture. Any medicines stored in the kitchen should be kept away from the stove, sink and hot appliances.

Wherever your medicines are, keep them out of reach of children. Every year, tens of thousands of children visit emergency rooms because of medication poisonings that have nothing to do with abuse or recreational use. The CDC reports that up to 80 percent of these poisonings are because an unsupervised child found and consumed medications.

Medicines should be too high for their curious little hands to reach or behind a locked door. If storing medicines in a pillbox is necessary, make sure it locks. Don’t let kids find pill bottles left in purses or coats. Also, make sure medicines are in their original containers. If a child accidentally swallows medicine, having the original container handy will help medical workers know what to do. Also be sure to have the Poison Control Center Helpline number handy: 1-800-222-1222.

3. Stock Up!

Now see what your collection needs so you can be armed and ready to address a wide-ranging scope of ailments.

For Aches, Pains and Fever:

For aches, pains and fever, you can use acetaminophen (Tylenol) and anti-inflammatory medicines like aspirin, ibuprofen (found in Advil and Motrin) and naproxen sodium (Aleve). Aspirin also helps defend against heart attacks and strokes. To prevent accidental overdose, always read the label for recommended dosages, especially for babies.

For Tummy Aches and other Digestion Issues:

Indigestion, nausea and diarrhea can be treated with Pepto-Bismol. Bicarbonate tablets (such as Alka-Seltzer) can treat heartburn. Nausea and vomiting can be tamed with Dramamine and Emetrol. Indigestion can also be treated with antihistamine H2 blockers found in Tagamet and Zantac or proton pump inhibitors found in Prilosec and Prevacid. The antacid calcium carbonate tucked in products like Rolaids and Tums and magnesium hydroxide in Phillips Milk of Magnesia can help relieve indigestion and heartburn as well. To relieve constipation, you can keep glycerine suppositories in stock or use other medications such as Correctol, Ex-lax and Dulcolax. And if you’re really into cabbage and other windy foods, you’ll need gas-reducing meds like Gas-X or Phazyme.

For Colds and Coughs:

Try the cough suppressant dextromethorphan (brand names Delsym, Robitussin and Pedicare). Also, the expectorant guaifenesin (Robitussin, Mucinex) loosens mucus, making coughs more productive. Oral decongestants such as pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) also may be helpful. Nasal spray decongestants (Afrin and Dristan) behave like their oral counterparts, but only on the area you apply it. Cough drops or sprays (which usually contain benzocaine or “cepacol”) are handy for soothing sore throats. For children, it may be safer to keep separate medicines for colds for each symptom to avoid overdosing on ingredients.

For Allergies:

Nasal sprays with cromolyn sodium (Nasalcrom) can be helpful as well as antihistamines to treat itches and other allergic reactions. Medicines with diphenhydramine (such as Benadryl) work well, but tend to bring on drowsiness. Allergy medications with non-sedating antihistamines include Claritin, Zytec and Allegra.

Odds and Ends:

You’ll also need a first aid kit, which should include regular adhesive bandages to seal and protect wounds and sterile gauze or medical tape if something larger is needed. Keep tweezers to remove tiny foreign objects such as splinters and ticks. Other miscellaneous items that you’ll need include a thermometer, heating pad, cotton swabs, nail files and plastic containers.

For Skin Treatments:

Hydrogen peroxide, isopropyl alcohol and antibiotic ointments such as Neosporin help clean and disinfect minor cuts and scrapes. Muscle cream or adhesive patches (Ben-Gay and Icy Hot) ease achy muscles. Antifungal creams help fight athlete’s foot and jock itch. And of course, sunscreen prevents sunburns.

Now, with an organized, current and wisely stored cache of medicines, you won’t have to worry about driving to the store with aches and a fever. And you know you’re ready to handle those little boo-boos or sniffles. Just zip right in, find what you need, and get back to your loved one to make it all better.

Pamela Perkins was a longtime staff reporter for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, where she earned a Missouri Lifestyle Journalism Award and a Neighborhood USA Notable Award. She now lives in Chattanooga with her family.
Pamela Perkins

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