Safe Handling of Medications at Home

Do you have medications stored in the bathroom cabinet, kitchen drawer, and pantry shelf? Are random bottles haphazardly tossed into the “pharmacy”? Medications are meant to help us and our pets, but they can do more harm than good if stored or administered incorrectly. You can protect your family and pets by handling medications safely.

What are some tips for handling and storing medications safely?

Keep human and pet medication separate. Although humans and pets often take the same 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.

Highlight the patient’s name on the prescription label. Keeping medications straight can be challenging if you have more than one pet. Highlighting will call your attention to the name, so do not accidentally give Fido a medication prescribed for Fluffy.

Make sure prescription labels are readable. If a label becomes wet or worn, you may be unable 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.

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; most eye drops expire 28 days after opening. 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.

 "Drugs may not be safe or effective beyond the specified expiration date."

Develop a habit of checking expiration dates twice a year when the clocks change. 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 (proper disposal is explained below).

Organize inventory. You may have various pet medications in your home. Use labeled resealable 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. Put the medication back in the proper bag after giving it.

Have a first aid kit handy. Label another plastic bag or container as “First Aid” and store it with the medications, so you know where to find emergency supplies. Have gauze, tape, hydrogen peroxide, antibiotic ointment, tweezers, scissors, and diphenhydramine (Benadryl) on hand. See the first aid handouts for more ideas about what to keep in your kit.

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

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, including over-the-counter products.

"Protect pets and children by keeping all drugs out of reach, including over-the-counter products."

Store medications correctly. Temperature and humidity can alter the effectiveness of medications. It’s essential 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. Refrigerated drugs belong in the fridge. But it is also important to keep room temperature drugs at the correct temperature; do not 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.

Never use leftover medicine without permission. If you have leftover antibiotics from your pet’s last infection, do not give them to your pet again without consulting your veterinarian. If her skin rash looks like what she had last spring, call before applying that leftover ointment. Treating a condition with the wrong drug can make matters worse.

Lock up controlled drugs. Keep narcotics and pain relievers in a lock box to 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.

"Keep narcotics and pain relievers in a lock box to help prevent them from falling into the hands of a child or drug abuser."

Open medicine containers on a flat surface. A level surface will minimize the spilling of liquids and prevent spilled liquids and pills from reaching the floor where curious pets can lap them up.

How do I dispose of medications properly?

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

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.

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

"You can place unused pills in the garbage, but it is best to take them out of the prescription bottle first."

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 likely deter anyone from “recycling” them.

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 indicates that it is safe to do so, as some medications may contaminate the environment downstream. Flush the toilet several times and wash out the sink with lots of running water afterward.

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