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5 Simple Steps to Clean Out the Medicine Cabinet

Regularly cleaning out your older adult’s medicine cabinet makes sure that their medications are safe and up-to-date

Cleaning out your older adult’s medicine cabinet is an easily forgotten caregiving task. Hedva Barenholtz Levy, PharmD explains why it’s important to do this once a year and shares 5 easy steps to make sure all medications are safe and up-to-date.

Older adults are the most common consumers of medication in the U.S., with 85% taking at least one medication on a regular basis, and 36% taking 5 or more. 

Plus, nearly 40% of older adults use over-the-counter (OTC) products and 64% use dietary supplements on a regular basis. 

Every home has some form of a medicine cabinet for storing all these medications. However, they tend to accumulate over time, which can lead to health risks. 

This article shares three reasons why it’s important to regularly clean out your older adult’s medicine cabinet and five simple steps to get it done safely.


3 top reasons to clean out the medicine cabinet

Cleaning out your older adult’s medicine cabinet is an important yearly task. 

1. It can lead to safer medicine use Regularly evaluating all medications reduces the accidental use of old, outdated, and possibly ineffective medication.

2. Medication quality changes over time Eventually, all drugs degrade and become less effective, not effective, or even harmful. 

It’s important that any medicine your older adult takes can still be counted on to do its job. 

3. Reduce medication errors The risk for medication mix-ups and confusion increases when there are old or no-longer-used medicines at home.

The greatest concern is that your older adult or a caregiver might accidentally reach for an old or incorrect pill bottle that’s stored in the medicine cabinet.

5 simple steps to clean out the medicine cabinet

1. Gather all of your older adult’s medications in one spot Gather all prescriptions, OTC products, and supplements as well as creams, ointments, nasal sprays, eye drops, and liquid products.

Safely dispose of any loose tablets or capsules that you find (see tips in #4 below).

Set aside anything that isn’t stored in its original containers, not capped properly, or with labels that have come off or are unreadable. All of these items should be discarded (see #4 below).

2. Identify prescription medications that are old or no longer used Separate the prescriptions that your older adult is currently taking from the ones that your older adult no longer takes or that are expired. 

The common definition of an expired prescription medicine is one year from the date it was filled at the pharmacy. This date is found on the printed pharmacy label. 

If the medicine is in the original manufacturer’s bottle and for inhalers and eye drops, the manufacturer’s expiration date can be used as long as the medication has been stored properly (see tip #5 below).

Advertisement 3. Identify nonprescription medicines that are expired Check expiration dates to identify all expired nonprescription medications. A good rule of thumb is to discard products that are at least six months beyond the expiration date.

Expiration dates are printed either on the label or directly on the bottle, usually on the bottom or near the neck.

If the product comes in a box, the expiration date often is imprinted on one of the ends. 

For creams or ointments, look on the crimp at the bottom of the tube. 

Note: For dietary supplements, including vitamins, the government does not require an expiration date.

4. Safely dispose of old and/or expired medications Safe disposal is important to reduce risks of accidental poisoning to children or pets, contamination of the water system, and improper or dangerous usage.

Ideally, prescription and nonprescription pills should be emptied into a single bag and brought to a safe disposal / drug take-back location – found at most police stations and pharmacies. 

Tablets and capsules should not be flushed down the sink or toilet unless you’re specifically instructed to do so by a pharmacist.

If you can’t get to a safe disposal location, empty all the pills into a bag, mix them with coffee grounds, cat litter, or another undesirable substance, seal the bag tightly, and throw it in the trash.

Creams and ointments generally can be thrown out in the trash. Get more information on safe drug disposal here.

To keep private information secure, be sure to scratch out personal information on the pharmacy label before discarding old medication bottles.

5. Properly store the non-expired medications A final but important step is to make sure your older adult’s medicines are stored properly.

Be sure to store regularly used medications and supplements separately from those that are only used once in a while (like cold medicine, etc.). One way is to keep them in two separate and clearly-labeled containers.

Heat, light, and humidity can impact the quality of medications and cause decreased effectiveness.

The best location to store medications is a cool, dry cabinet away from heat, humidity, direct sunlight and out of reach of children and pets.

The traditional bathroom medicine cabinet ISN’T a good place because of the exposure to heat and humidity.

Similarly, near the stove or oven or in direct sunlight are also bad places to store medications.

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Guest contributor: Hedva Barenholtz Levy PharmD, BCPS, BCGP, is a clinical pharmacist who specializes in working with older adults residing in the community setting at HbL PharmaConsulting. She promotes the safe and effective use of medications through comprehensive medication reviews and by educating patients, healthcare professionals, and others who work with older adults.

This article wasn’t sponsored and doesn’t contain affiliate links. For more information, see How We Make Money.


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