The Medicine Cabinet: What You Need, How to Store, When to Toss

“The desire to take medicine is perhaps the greatest feature which distinguishes man from animals.”

–Sir William Osler

Expiration and Disposal

Do medications really expire?  Richard Altschuler writes an informative article with a refreshing lack of technical jargon; he even tests his theory on his mother in law!  The bottom line:

First, the expiration date, required by law in the United States, beginning in 1979, specifies only the date the manufacturer guarantees the full potency and safety of the drug — it does not mean how long the drug is actually “good” or safe to use. Second, medical authorities uniformly say it is safe to take drugs past their expiration date — no matter how “expired” the drugs purportedly are. Except for possibly the rarest of exceptions, you won’t get hurt and you certainly won’t get killed….Third, studies show that expired drugs may lose some of their potency over time, from as little as 5% or less to 50% or more (though usually much less than the latter). Even 10 years after the “expiration date,” most drugs have a good deal of their original potency. So wisdom dictates that if your life does depend on an expired drug, and you must have 100% or so of its original strength, you should probably toss it and get a refill, in accordance with the cliché, “better safe than sorry.” If your life does not depend on an expired drug — such as that for headache, hay fever, or menstrual cramps — take it and see what happens.

I’m wincing now, wishing I had read this the day before I tossed out $30 worth of “expired” Benadryl and Tylenol Cold.

If you do choose to toss old meds, don’t flush them down the toilet!  Check out What to do with your Unused Pharmaceuticals.  Method:

Getting people to stop flushing away their unwanted medication is one easy way to cut down on pharmaceutical pollution. So last year, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) issued new federal guidelines for the proper disposal of prescription drugs. According to the guidelines, unused, unneeded, or expired prescription drugs should be removed from their original containers and thrown in the trash.

To prevent accidental poisonings or potential drug abuse, ONDCP recommends mixing meds with an undesirable substance, such as coffee grounds or kitty litter. The mix should be placed into impermeable, nondescript containers, such as empty cans or sealable plastic bags, before being tossed in the trash.

Children and Medicine

  • If you have children, teach them about safety and medicine with this teaching chart from the FDA.  You may be diligent about storing medications out of the reach of your children but Grandma or another caregiver may be more lax.  What they don’t know can hurt them.
  • Store all medications in a locked or very high cabinet.  Never keep medications in your purse.  Your baby may not be able to open a zipper…until the day she can.
  • For those without small children who occasionally care for or entertain little ones, secure your cabinet handles with a cable zip tie for the duration of their visit. If you use a classic hinged medicine cabinet you can quickly transfer medications into a box and temporarily store them on a high shelf.
  • Did you know?  The American Academy of Pediatrics no longer recommends keeping syrup of ipecac in the home to induce vomiting in children.

Organizing your Medicine Cabinet

  • It is recommended that medications be stored away from light, heat, and moisture.  So why do most of us still store our medicine in the bathroom?  Maybe because it has a medicine cabinet!  Or maybe because the thought of grabbing some Advil from the coat closet just seems wrong.  I do store the bulk of my medicine in the bathroom, but it’s the guest bathroom that sees much less shower use than the master bath.
  • Again, if you have children, store all medications well out of reach.  Mine are in a high overhead cabinet that my tallest child could not reach even if he were to make an attempt by standing on the counter.  Thankfully I’m very tall so I don’t have to grab the stepladder every time I have a headache.
  • The “Pharmacy”:  this is the place (that overhead cabinet) where most medications are stored.  I keep three plastic bins (wicker is hard to wash if something spills) categorized as “Sick” (cold/flu/stomach), “Kids”, and “First Aid.”
  • Satellite Stations
    • In the kitchen:  Medications taken daily (vitamins, prescriptions) or regularly (pain relievers, Tums) can go on the topmost shelf in a kitchen cabinet away from the stove.
    • In the car: keep a ziploc bag with a few bandaids, Neosporin, sunscreen, and Children’s Tylenol in an insulated bag (the Neosporin will melt all over your car in summer heat just like your lipgloss) so you can fix up a skinned knee and keep playing at the park.
    • Travel:  I keep an empty makeup bag in the First Aid bin in my “Pharmacy.”  When I pack for travel I can quickly gather any medications I need (or could possibly need) without buying duplicates.
    • Sunscreen:  I slather my kiddos with sunscreen several times a day so we’ve amassed an arsenal of sunscreen.  The bottles go in a plastic bin deep enough to keep them from tipping on the shelf in my–yep–coat closet.  It’s the nearest closed storage to the backdoor and the promise of sunshine.

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What do you think?



  1. 5

    The style of writing is very familiar to me. Have you written guest posts for other blogs?

  2. 6

    According to Expired tetracycline can cause a dangerous syndrome resulting in damage to the kidneys.

  3. 7

    My pharmacist told me that there are medications that can be dangerous to use past their expiration date, especially antibiotics…Tetracycline, to name one. I would be careful and look for a professional opinion about your specific medication(s) before using them much past their expiration date.

  4. 8

    I didn’t know all that about drug expiry dates – that’s really helpful, and I, like you, just got done purging and threw away a bunch of things I didn’t need to. Live and learn.

  5. 9

    On a related note, a new Web site offers information about the safety of the prescriptions filled by your local pharmacy, and steps you can take to keep your families safe.

    Check out