Pack rats are small rodents with a reputation for saving nearly everything they can get their paws on. Across the span of generations, little critters and their progeny can build nests laden with “stuff,” accumulated over 40,000 years in some remote locations.
I find that many people, similar to pack rats, save and store their medications. The results can be impressive. Imagine opening the bathroom medicine cabinet to find tablets, salves and elixirs, dating back to the 1980s. How about that drawer in the bathroom overflowing with literally every cold remedy known to humans?
My personal favorite, and the one for which I feel the most responsible, is the proverbial “bag of medicines,” often carried like a purse, filled with old and new prescriptions. I make a point of reviewing each bottle and cataloguing the contents.
What often worries me as I delve into “the bag” is that it contains not only current medications but every medication prescribed to the patient since the last millennium.
Many of these medications were discontinued for good reasons and many interact unfavorably with more recent prescriptions.
Patients have different reasons for keeping their old medications. For some, it’s financial. “By golly, that bottle of pills cost me $120. I’ll be darned if I’m gonna throw them away – even if it made my tongue as thick as my wrist.”
For others, it’s a control thing. “I’ve still got five days’ worth of that seven-day antibiotic course. I think I’ll save the rest for the next time I get a cold and my doctor tries to tell me that it’s just a virus.”
For most, it is simple confusion based on a complex medication regimen and the generally poor job health professionals do educating patients about their treatment plan.
Unfortunately, acting like a pack rat with your medications poses some significant risks to your health. For starters, children have a tendency to find these stashes and those little pills look an awful lot like candy. The more you have lying around, the tougher it is to keep out of little hands and mouths.
Next, some medications interact dangerously with one another. Either intentionally or mistakenly taking old prescriptions with newer ones might have disastrous effects.
Taking old antibiotics violates a number of important health objectives. First, taking less than the full course may not completely treat an infection or may produce resistant bacteria. Second, taking old antibiotics for a new problem assumes you have a bacterial infection and know how to treat it. What if you are wrong?
Finally, many medications expire, usually within one to two years of their purchase date.
For your safety, plan to review your prescriptions regularly (along with nonprescription medications you take) with your doctor. Don’t forget to bring “the bag.”
Also, discard old or unused medications. A good method is to mix them with your coffee grounds or kitty litter and toss them in the trash rather than the toilet.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Health Center in Towaoc.