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Fall house cleaning – medicine and vitamin cabinets

October 14, 2021 | Local News

Yes, it is that time of year when the changing of the seasons often prompts us to do a little seasonal house cleaning. As we prepare for the holiday-intensive months ahead, there is one area that we frequently overlook.

Let’s turn our attention to our medicine and vitamin cabinets. Yes, even vitamin supplements need to be kept up to date for us to get the maximum – and safest – results.

The first question most of us ask is quite simple: “Do we even need to pay attention to expiration dates on medicines or vitamins?” There are several possible answers and they may surprise you.

All prescription drugs manufactured in the United States must have an expiration date printed on the label. In addition, nearly all-over-the-counter and dietary supplements like vitamins and minerals often include an expiration date on the labels.

However, according to and other studies performed by universities and independent institutions, the expiration date isn’t exactly what we think it is. The irony about expiration dates on the medicines and vitamins we take is that the expiration date only applies to unopened containers. The manufacturers apply this date to when a container is opened, even when the pharmacist is the one who opens a larger container to sort out a few pills for individual prescriptions. Manufacturers, because of liability issues, will not make any recommendations about the stability of a drug after the expiration date on the original container once it is opened. That seems to be the main reason most pharmacists put a “use by” date of 12 months from the date you fill you prescription.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets the guidelines for manufacturers to conduct stability testing to determine just how long their drugs will provide the intended doses and results. Most independent testing agrees that manufacturers set an expiration time from 12 to 60 months from the manufacture date.

Manufacturers cannot guarantee the stability of a drug when they don’t know how the end users will store the medicine. So there is most likely a difference between the “use by” date and the shelf life of a medicine or supplement. However, since it is impossible for patients, doctors and pharmacists to actually account for how the medicine is handled from the manufacturer all the way to the patient, it makes sense to follow the expiration information on your medications and supplements.

Eye drops and ear drops that contain a preservative can form unhealthy bacteria if kept beyond the “use by” date.

Of course, EpiPens must be kept current in order to save the life of someone with potentially life-threatening allergies. This is due to the instability of epinephrine, the main ingredient in EpiPens, because it degrades so quickly.

What do we do with the medicines that are either expired or that we don’t need any more? (No, we cannot flush them or put them in the trash.) Berthoud Drug has a drop box for expired medications located at the back of the store. Most police stations also accept prescription drugs.  Just remember that it is safest to responsibly dispose of unused medications rather than keep them around the house where they could possibly do more harm than good.

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