Taking Stock of the Family Medicine Cabinet

Barbara Sax
Published Online: Wednesday, January 1, 2003
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Cold and flu season is a good time for patients to take stock of the family medicine cabinet to determine which medications are no longer useful, which medications should be kept on hand, and which they will need to add to their arsenal in preparation for those stuffy heads and runny noses that are sure to be a part of the winter months.

?It?s important to have a supply of medicines and first aid products at home for convenience and safety,? said Dr. Daniel Hussar, Remington Professor of Pharmacy at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, Pa. ?Many of us have had the experience of needing a product quickly or at a time when a pharmacy is not open, so it?s good foresight to have these supplies on hand.?

Robert Donovan, president of the Council on Family Health (CFH), stresses the importance of cleaning out and replenishing the family medicine cabinet annually. ?Expired medications may not be as effective or as safe as they once were, so it?s a good idea to look through your medicine cabinet and throw away old medicines at least once a year,? he said. Donovan said that it also is important to throw away all prescription medicines that a physician has told a patient to stop taking.

?Any prescription, OTC medicine, or dietary supplement which has a noticeable change in color or smell or any medication for which the label or package instructions are missing or cannot be read should also be thrown away,? said Donovan.
It is important that patients dispose of medicines safely. Before putting medicine or supplements in the trash, consumers should flush the contents in the toilet or wash them down the sink, putting only the empty container in the trash. ?This stops them from getting into the wrong hands,? said Donovan. ?Checking expiration dates and properly storing and using medicines are important ways for people to safeguard their own health and the health of their families.?

Proper Storage Is Key
When setting up a medicine cabinet, Dr. Hussar recommends keeping all medicine and first aid supplies in a single location. ?It?s easier to keep things together so that they can be easily located when needed,? he explained. The CFH recommends keeping medicines and medicine cabinet supplies in a cool, dry place, because heat and humidity can affect the potency of medicines. For that reason, Dr. Hussar suggests that keeping supplies in a bathroom cabinet may not be the best idea.

?The high temperatures and humidity that can develop in a bathroom can be a negative factor when storing medications, since humidity could enter an improperly capped product and speed up the degradation of the drug,? said Dr. Hussar. ?Locating supplies in a closet in a bedroom or in a kitchen cabinet may be a better choice.? Medicines should not be stored in the refrigerator unless the label so states. They always should be kept not only out of the reach, but also out of the sight of young children. Products with a child-resistant cap should be chosen if there are children in the house. Patients never should purchase any product that shows cuts, tears, slices, or any other signs of damage to the product. They always should check the expiration date before purchasing any product.

Cold and Flu ?Must-Haves?
What should the typical household keep in the family medicine cabinet? The CFH has some recommendations here as well.
?During all seasons, it?s important to always be prepared. The CFH recommends keeping certain medicines on hand at all times,? said Donovan. Those must-have medications for colds and flu include the following:
? A pain reliever (aspirin, acetamin-ophen, or ibuprofen) for relief of headaches, muscle aches, and joint pain. If children are being treated, they should not use aspirin and never should be given adult-strength ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
? A decongestant, to reduce nasal congestion, and cough medicine, to help suppress coughing?particularly at night. These can sometimes be found in a combination product that will treat both symptoms.
? Stomach remedies to prevent or treat indigestion, heartburn, or upset stomach.
? Antihistamines for allergic reactions and itching. Anti-itch lotions or creams also can be included as a first aid measure for the relief of insect bites, itching, and skin irritations.
? An antidiarrheal. Because diarrhea can be dehydrating, particularly for small children, it may be a good idea to keep electrolyte solutions on hand to help rehydrate the patient as well.

A fully stocked medicine cabinet also should contain a thermometer ?preferably a digital, nonmercury model. ?Following a report addressing the hazards of mercury exposure, the American Academy of Pediatrics asked pediatricians to stop using all mercury-containing devices, including thermometers, and encourage parents to do the same,? said Donovan.

First Aid Necessities
Cold and flu medicines are not the only important components of any home medicine cabinet. First aid items are key products to have on hand to treat minor cuts, scrapes, and bruises.

?Many of these products have a longer shelf life than medications, so they can be stored in a medicine cabinet safely for long periods of time,? said Dr. Hussar. He suggests shopping with a list, rather than relying on memory to restock first aid needs. Particularly when setting up a first aid supply, it?s good to be prepared with a list, so you don?t realize you?ve overlooked something as you?re dressing a wound,? he said.

Dr. Hussar?s list of must-haves includes an assortment of sterile adhesive bandages in various sizes, as well as gauze bandages and first aid adhesive tape. The CFH recommends individually wrapped sterile gauze pads in 2- and 4-inch sizes (perfect for elbow and knee scrapes), as well as sterile roller bandages to lend support to sprained or sore muscles. Butterfly bandages also can be a helpful addition. Patients never will know when they will need a specific type of bandage.

An anesthetic spray or liquid to alleviate local soreness and a triple antibiotic cream or ointment to prevent infection of minor wounds are mandatory items for any medicine cabinet as well. ?Hydrocortisone is also an important product to have on hand to relieve inflammation and itching associated with cuts, burns, or insect bites,? said Dr. Hussar.

He suggests keeping a set of first aid tools with other medical supplies so that they will be easily accessible when needed. Small, but easily forgotten, items are scissors and tweezers. An ice pack also is on Dr. Hussar?s must-have list. ?People can usually keep an ice pack in the freezer so it?s ready whenever needed,? he said.

The CFH and Dr. Hussar stressed the importance of keeping a bottle of syrup of ipecac on hand in homes with small children?although it should be used to induce vomiting only if a poison control center or emergency medical professional or physician so directs. ?A standard 1-ounce bottle should be kept on hand,? said Dr. Hussar. ?People might even have the phone number of the poison control center written on the bottle so they know where both things are in case of an emergency,? he added.

Another preventive OTC product on Dr. Hussar?s must-have list is sunscreen. Because sun protection is really a year-round concern, keeping sunscreen accessible at all times makes compliance more likely when people are spending a day outdoors. Including sunscreen in a medicine cabinet is a perfect idea. After all, an ounce of prevention is worth any of the cures found in a first aid kit.

For a list of references, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to: References Department, Attn. D. Campagnola, Pharmacy Times, 241 Forsgate Drive, Jamesburg, NJ 08831; or send an e-mail request to: dcampagnola@mwc.com.



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