Being prepared for disasters means storing food, but it also means putting together a stockpile of medical supplies. While bandages and instruments may keep acceptably in a variety of environments, medications are another story. How medicines are stored can affect their potency over time. To maintain the maximum effectiveness of the drugs, there are several factors that deserve your attention: heat, humidity, and light.
Heat: Many medicines are best stored in a cool environment. The effective life of a drug usually is in inverse relation to the temperature it is stored at. In other words, a drug stored at 50 degrees Fahrenheit will last much longer than one stored at 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
Having said that, most medications are meant to be stored at room temperature. Insulin and some antibiotic elixirs are an exception, and should be stored in the refrigerator, although one recent study on insulin showed little short-term (one month) degradation at room temperature. A good rule of thumb is that, unless the bottle contains labeling that says otherwise, it’s unnecessary (and often harmful) to freeze or otherwise diverge from the advice given by the manufacturer.
Light: Much like excessive exposure to the sun could damage skin, light sometimes could have an ill effect on certain drugs. These meds are commonly stored in brownish-colored or amber bottles. Keep all medicines in their original containers, but place them in a dark place for long-term storage.
Humidity: Medicines should be kept as dry as possible. It might be a good idea, however, to remove the cotton ball commonly placed with some drugs, as it could pull moisture into the container. Concerns about humidity is why medicines often come with small packets of desiccant (drying crystals or powder) inside the container. Moisture could cause mold and mildew to form, especially on natural remedies such as dried herbs and powders. These often spoil after a year or so.
Most folks store medications in the bathroom medicine cabinet, but you might be surprised to know that the moisture from showers and baths can degrade drugs significantly. Instead, consider a high shelf in a closet or a dedicated storage box.
One of the questions we’re often asked is whether drugs will benefit from vacuum sealing. Although you’ll find opinions everywhere, there seems to be little hard data on the issue. It would be logical that more drugs would be vacuum packed by the manufacturer if it was that important to maintain potency. Pharmaceutical companies want you to discard older meds, however, so they might not be motivated to recommend it.
Vacuum packing would protect against moisture but wouldn’t affect other preservation factors like temperature or light. As meds do best in their original containers, it seems that, with the possible exception of powder packets, it wouldn’t be an essential storage method in most cases. It makes sense, however, to vacuum pack dried herbs and some other natural products.
How Drugs Go Bad
Although many drugs last well beyond their expiration dates, there are always concerns as to whether a drug has “gone bad.” There are three ways this can happen:
• PHYSICAL MEANS: Deterioration due to factors like heat, evaporation, freezing, change in coloration, etc.
• CHEMICAL MEANS: Deterioration due to reactions like oxidation that change the composition, concentration, odor, or other characteristic of a substance.
• MICROBIAL MEANS: Deterioration due to contamination by organisms like mold, fungi, bacteria, etc.
Many times, it might be hard to tell if a drug has been affected negatively by improper storage; other times, it’s pretty obvious. Aspirin pills, for example, can develop a vinegar- or ammonia-like smell (even before the expiration date). Besides smell, a change in color or consistency may signal that a medication has degraded. If pills or capsules are harder or softer than normal or stick together, be wary. In liquids, color or viscosity changes may be a sign, as could an unusual odor or if solids accumulate at the base of an ampule or vial.
Some people get their meds through the mail. If so, choose overnight shipping whenever possible to avoid prolonged travel time. A 1995 FDA study found that a standard black mailbox can reach 136 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer heat. Excessive time in the hot sun or extreme cold for a long period of time can cause drug deterioration. A better alternative may be to deliver them where you can take possession personally and immediately. For many, this might be the workplace instead of the home.
Joe Alton MD
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