Every year, pharmacists receive many phone calls about medicine problems that arise from (usually accidental) misuse. Sometimes the problem is caused by a person using someone else’s empty bottles to store tablets but far more often it involves a child taking tablets that belong to their parents or grandparents. To children, many medicines look like lollies, and are an attractive target.
By following a few rules, you could save yourself (or someone else) a lot of worry, get the most out of your medicines and keep everyone safe.
Always keep medicines in the original containers
Many medicines are now foil packed, especially those that are particularly harmful to children, so it is important to leave them stored in the foil. Foil packing slows down the number of tablets children can gain access to if they are playing with them. Foil packaging also protects some medicines from damage caused by humidity in the atmosphere.
If you find foil packs difficult to manage, your pharmacist can look at the type of medicine and decide whether it is safe to pop the tablets out for you. If it is safe to do so, the pharmacist will put them in a suitable container that is easier to manage, and has all the relevant details on the label.
Don't pop them out yourself at home, and put them into an old bottle - someone may take them not realising that they are not the same as the tablets described on the label. And, a big 'No, No'... never put medicines into food or drink containers.
Also, medicines dispensed by the pharmacist leave the pharmacy labelled with important informaion: the name of the person who is to take them, the dose and how often to take them.
Keep medicines out of the reach of children
Every year more than 2000 people in New Zealand are admitted to hospital because of accidental poisoning. It may be convenient to keep medicines in drawers and on bench-tops, but it takes only a few minutes for toddlers and other young children to happily help themselves. Remember, young children have no idea about medicines - to them they look like attractive sweets.
The best place to keep medicines is in a high, locked cabinet. If this is not possible, keep them in a place where it will be difficult for children to see and reach, but keep in mind that children over the age of two can be expert climbers!
All medicines can be dangerous, especially in overdose. Just because you can buy a medicine in the pharmacy or supermarket - such as paracetamol and aspirin - it does not mean it is safe if taken by children or incorrectly.
If you think a child or someone who is in the house has taken a medicine not intended for them, call the National Poisons Centre on 0800 764 766 for advice, or call 111 for an ambulance. They will tell you what to do. If you have to take the child to hospital, take the medicine and the container with you. This will give the hospital good information about the medicine.
Medicines you should not take
It is sometimes tempting to use medicines that you have access to but which, strictly, should not be used. These include someone else's medicines, medicines that are out of date, and medicines that were once prescribed for you but were stopped. Do not take any of these. If you have a new need, discuss this with your pharmacist or doctor.
Store in a cool dry place, unless advised differently
Most medicines can be kept at room temperature. However some require either refrigeration or special storage conditions. Do not keep medicines in the fridge unless the label says so; this may destroy their effectiveness.
It is best to store medicines outside of the bathroom, as steam and humidity from showers and baths may reduce the effectiveness of some drugs. If your pills are moist and powdery, that's an indication they've been affected by humidity and/or changing temperatures. Show them to your pharmacist before using them and ask about the best place to store them.
Read and follow the directions on the label
Some medicines have special instructions that need to be followed to reduce or avoid side effects.
When using a new medicine (particularly if it is a prescription medicine) ask your pharmacist to explain it to you, including the best time to take it, and whether there are any special directions for use.
Dispose of unwanted medicines regularly and safely
If you have medicines around the house that you are no longer using, it is a good idea to dispose of them. Add your medicine cabinet to your spring-cleaning list - if you have left over medicines there, take them to your local pharmacy for disposal. Don't dispose of medicines in rubbish bags or bins. People may find them at rubbish tips, or in your rubbish.
Original material provided by Pauline Hamilton, Dip. Pharm, MRPSGB, reviewed by everybody 2005.