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 effectiveness of the drugs, there are several factors that deserve your attention:
Heat: 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. A good rule of thumb is that, unless the bottle contains labeling that says otherwise, it’s unnecessary (and in many cases, harmful) to freeze or otherwise diverge from the advice given by the manufacturer.
Excessive heat is another factor in losing drug potency. Given the choice, somewhat cooler is probably better than hotter. It’s thought that drug effectiveness fades twice as quickly if stored at 90 degrees Fahrenheit than if stored at 50 degrees.
Moisture: 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 the drug significantly. Instead, consider a high shelf in a closet or a dedicated storage box.
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 bottles. Keep all medicines in their original containers. It might be a good idea, however, to remove the cotton ball commonly placed with the drug as it could pull moisture into the container.
Many times, it might be hard to tell if a drug has been affected negatively, but some others are pretty obvious. Aspirin pills, for example, can develop a vinegar-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.
Some people get their meds through the mail. If so, choose overnight shipping whenever possible to avoid prolonged travel time. ABC news reported recently that a 1995 FDA study found that a standard black mailbox can reach 136 degrees in the summer heat. Excessive time in the hot sun or extreme cold for a long period of time causes drug deterioration. A better alternative may be to send them to where you can take possession personally and immediately. For many, this might be their workplace as opposed to their home.
One of the questions I’m often asked is whether drugs will benefit from vacuum sealing. Although you’ll find opinions everywhere, there doesn’t seem to be any hard data on the issue. I would expect that more drugs would be vacuum packed by the manufacturer if it was that important to maintain potency. Having said that, pharmaceutical companies want you to discard older meds so they might not be motivated to do so.
Vacuum packing would affect moisture but wouldn’t affect important preservation aspects 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.
So, consider storing all meds in cool, dark, dry conditions. It’s especially important to be sure that all medications are kept out of the reach of children. Childproof lids are meant to help you achieve this goal, but consider a storage box with a lock as well.
The wise family will keep a good medical kit and a supply of over-the-counter and needed prescription medicines stored safely in their home. In a disaster, attention to proper storage methods might just save a life.
Joe Alton, MD
Besides medicine, you’ll need a variety of medical supplies to deal with medical issues in times of trouble. Check out Nurse Amy’s entire line of medical kits at store.doomandbloom.net.