Safe Handling of Medications at Home

By Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Does your home double as a drug store? Do you have medications stashed in the bathroom cabinet, kitchen drawer and pantry shelf? Are random bottles haphazardly tossed into the “pharmacy”?

safe_meds_handlingHere are a few tips to help you safely handle your household medicine inventory.

  1. Keep human and pet medications separate. Although humans and pets often take the same kinds of medicines, many are dangerous if given to the wrong species. Your heart medication can harm your dog. His arthritis medication can harm you! Store human and pet drugs separately. Label the storage sites clearly as human, dog, cat, etc.

  2. Highlight the patient’s name on the prescription label. If you have more than one pet, keeping medications straight can be a challenge. Highlighting will call your attention to the name. Better not give Fido medications prescribed for Fluffy.

  3. Make sure prescription labels are readable. If a label becomes wet or worn, you may not be able to decipher it. Writing over the label makes the original instructions even less legible. Instead, re-write instructions on a separate piece of paper and affix the note to the medication container with tape. Having the pharmacy information, drug name, and prescription number handy and readable makes giving medications safer and calling for refills easier.

  4. Check expiration dates. Drugs may not be safe or effective beyond the specified expiration date. Topical medications like eye and ear drops can become contaminated turning into bacterial breeding grounds. Contaminated drops could make an eye or ear problem worse rather than better. Medications can also change consistency with time. Expired ointments may become thick or dried out and oral liquids may crystallize. Develop a habit of checking expiration dates twice a year when the time changes. Spring forward—check the medicine cabinet. Fall backward---check the medicine cabinet. This is also a good time to call for refills and discard all expired medications.

  5. Organize inventory. You may have lots of different pet medications on your shelf. Use labeled zip lock bags to organize them into categories. Using a permanent marker, label the bags clearly as eye, ear, antibiotics, arthritis, heartworm, flea/tick, heart, kidney etc. Be sure to replace the medicine in the proper bag after giving it.

  6. Have a first aid kit handy. Label another plastic bag “First Aid” and store it with the medications so you’ll know where to find emergency supplies. Have gauze, tape, hydrogen peroxide, antibiotic ointment, tweezers, scissors, and diphenhydramine (Benadryl) on hand.

  7. Protect yourself. Wash your hands before and after giving your dog or cat any medicine, oral or topical. Some medications can irritate or be absorbed into human skin so wear gloves when giving these.

  8. Keep drugs out of reach. Your pet may not recognize medicine as medicine. That chewy pill resembles a yummy treat. That tube of ointment looks like a fun chew toy. Treat your pets as eternal children and keep all medicine out of their reach. Speaking of children, about 60,000 kids visit the emergency room annually after inappropriately taking medicine. Protect pets and children by keeping all drugs out of reach, even non-prescription products.

  9. Store medications correctly. Temperature and humidity can alter the effectiveness of medications. It’s important to store them at the right temperature in a dry place. That means the kitchen pantry is a better drug store than the bathroom cabinet. Obviously refrigerated drugs belong in the fridge. But it’s important to keep room temperature drugs at the correct temperature, too. That means you shouldn’t leave them on the kitchen counter in direct sunlight. Finally, no medication should be left in a hot car or on an icy doorstep. When drugs are delivered to your home, bring them inside immediately.

  10. Never use left-over medicine without permission. If you have left over antibiotics from your pet’s last infection, don’t give it to them without consulting your veterinarian. If her skin rash looks like the one she had last spring, call before applying that left over ointment. Treating a condition with the wrong drug can make matters worse.

  11. Lock up controlled drugs. Keep narcotics and pain relievers in a lock box. This will help prevent them from falling into the hands of a child or drug abuser. There are many types of lock boxes available that also help organize medications.

  12. Open medicine containers on a flat countertop. A level surface will minimize spilling of liquids. The counter will also prevent spilled liquids, as well as pills, from reaching the floor where curious pets can lap them up.

Proper Disposal

So you’ve taken inventory and culled unused and expired medicines from the stash. What’s next? Here are some medicine disposal tips.

  1. Take them back. Even if you received your pets medication from the veterinarian, most human pharmacies will willingly take back unused or expired medications and dispose of them properly for you.

  2. Participate in community programs. Drug take-back days sponsored by community organizations, law enforcement agencies, government programs, or pharmaceutical companies are available in many areas. Look for dates of the next organized effort in your community.

  3. Take medications out of their original containers. You can place unused pills in the garbage, but it’s best to take them out of the prescription bottle first. This reduces the risk of having someone else use them. Most people, even drug seekers, will hesitate to consume an unidentified drug.

  4. Mix it up. To further deter misuse of discarded medications, mix them with undesirable substances. Placing crushed pills in a bag or can with used coffee grounds or dirty kitty litter will deter anyone from “recycling” them.

  5. Use the drain. Some liquid medications (ear flush, shampoo, antibiotics) or pills dissolved in water can be safely washed down the drain or flushed down the toilet. Only do this if the medicine label tells you it’s safe to do so. Flush the toilet several times and wash out the sink with lots of running water afterwards.

Medications are meant to help us and our pets, but they can do more harm than good if administered incorrectly. Protect all your family members by handling medications safely.

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