Does Your Medicine Cabinet Need a Makeover?

Does Your Medicine Cabinet Need a Makeover?

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It turns out you may not need everything you’ve been stocking up on, so add this oft-forgotten area to your spring-cleaning list.


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Our medicine cabinets have become at-home mini drugstores and are often the first place we turn when facing a medical issue, sometimes even before turning to the doctor. As parents, we want to have a plethora of medications on hand in case of any emergency, whether it’s the flu or the imaginary boo-boo your little one has because she wants to accessorize with character Band-Aids.

We’re right there with you: It’s comforting to know there are three bottles of children’s fever reducer within reach at all times. But every time we open the cabinet, we run the risk of an avalanche of cotton balls, cough drops, and painkillers falling on us, which doesn’t need to be the case! We’re here to help with advice from pediatricians and pharmacists to completely rethink what you need to have on hand, reorganize your medicine cabinet for safety reasons, and provide a little sanity when your kid gets sick.

Cabinet Clean Out

Doctors and pharmacists recommend cleaning out the medicine cabinet and taking inventory of the medications it contains once or twice a year. Check the expiration dates on over-the-counter (OTC) medicines and properly dispose of those that are no longer safe to take.

“The main problem with taking expired medications is decrease in efficiency,” says Eric Levene, M.D., a pediatrician at Allied Pediatrics in White Plains. “After the expiration date, the medicine won’t work as well, and you won’t be taking the right dosage because it will be less effective.”

Eye drops, creams, and even cosmetics that are stored in the medicine cabinet can harbor different types of bacteria, so when in doubt, throw it out. The irony of a medicine cabinet? Due to the moisture levels in your bathroom, it isn’t the best place for long-term medication storage, according to Joanna Tracy, Pharm. D., assistant director of Pharmacy at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital (NYU Langone). Most medications can be stored at room temperature, but you should always defer to the medication label when determining which conditions are best for storage. (Areas to never store your medications, though: the car or any other places subject to high temperatures.)

What to Have on Hand

Parents tend to buy a ton of medications to have on hand “just in case,” but this isn’t recommended, according to Dr. Tracy. While it can be anxiety relieving to have the comfort of a makeshift drugstore store readily available, this can actually do more harm than good. Having a ton of medications laying around raises the risk of kids getting their hands on medicines that can be toxic to them and ingesting expired medications, and creates overall clutter in a place where it is important to be organized.

Additionally, over-the-counter medications, while helpful, often have active ingredients that provide the potential for incidental misuse and higher-than-recommended dosages, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a division of the National Institutes of Health. Some ingredients found in OTC medications that can be harmful include dextromethorphan, a cough suppressant, and loperamide, an anti-diarrheal. These medications, when combined with other drugs such as alcohol and marijuana, are especially harmful because they can affect the brain in a similar way to opioids, according to NIDA.

“There have been reports of over-the-counter medications causing life threatening side effects in children under two,” says Dr. Tracy, so it is important to pay attention to what medications are safe to give your infant. In the case that you need to give your infant a pain reliever or fever reducer, it is safe to administer acetaminophen, but not ibuprofen. Though, Dr. Levene recommends herbal remedies, with mediation, for infants.

Herbal remedies are the standard for infants, however just because they are natural does not mean they are always safe,” Dr. Levene says. “Always consult with your physician and let them know everything you are using to treat your baby because some medications can interfere with herbal remedies.”

For children younger than 6, you should refrain from administering cough medications, according to Dr. Levene. After age 6, saline sprays, ibuprofen pain relievers, and antihistamines such as Benadryl are generally okay, but you should always consult your doctor especially when children are at a young age.

Keep Kids’ Hands Off

When arranging the medications in your cabinet, keep in mind what you’re putting within reach of your little ones. Any and all medications should ideally be kept in a place where children cannot reach them and only adults should be able to distribute them. This is especially important for antidepressants and opioids.

“If the medicine cabinet is in a place accessible to a child, for example a lower cabinet, then it is recommended that the cabinet be locked,” says Aimee Kahn, M.D., M.P.H., a pediatrician at Crystal Run Healthcare in West Nyack.

Disposing of unnecessary medications properly guarantees your children will not access them. And that’s no small concern: The nonmedical use of prescription drugs is a highly dangerous issue that is plaguing today’s youth. In fact, the rate of prescription opioid misuse is incredibly high and rapidly growing, according to the results of the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

In a series of studies involving 810 patients, more than two-thirds of subjects reported having opioids left over after surgery, according to a report published by JAMA Surgery. Only 4-30 percent of those study participants actually planned to or had already disposed of the leftover drugs, and even fewer had followed U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines to do so properly.

Remember: You should never flush any medications down the toilet or sink due to the risk of contaminating the water supply. With that said, when you’re done taking a medication but have some left over, properly discard of it and don’t leave it laying around for anyone to get their hands on it. The best way to do this is through a New York state-approved medicine drop off location, according to Dr. Tracy; visit health.ny.gov to find one near you. There are also scheduled U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration take-back days; find more information about these days in accordance with your area at takebackday.dea.gov.

“The inquisitive nature of children is an amazing thing, and we as parents and caregivers should do our best to give them a safe environment,” Dr. Kahn says. “Young kids love to explore!” If you are cognizant of where your medication is from the day it is picked up to the day you’re done with it, the medicine cabinet doesn’t have to be a scary place.

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