Synopsis: Most people’s medicine cabinet is a disorganized mess with problems that could prevent healing and even threaten health. A pharmacist advised what should be in your medicine cabinet and how to keep those medicines safe and effective.

Host: Lynn Holley. Guest: Sherry Torkos, pharmacist and author, The Canadian Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine and Saving Women’s Hearts

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Your Medicine Cabinet

Lynn Holley: If you’re like most people, the medicine cabinet in your bathroom ends up being the repository for everything you use in that room – toothpaste and toothbrushes; make-up and moisturizers; bubble bath, and all sorts of shaving equipment. In amongst these necessities are the over-the-counter medications and maybe even some prescription drugs. It’s these medicines that are often old and forgotten – until you need them. With cold and flu season upon us, what should you have in your family medicine cabinet? And how should you monitor those meds you buy with and without a prescription? We asked Sherry Torkos, a pharmacist and author of The Canadian Encyclopedia Of Natural Medicine, and Saving Women’s Hearts. She looks at medicine cabinets like a pharmacist, and says she’s found many are very unorganized and unsafe.

Sherry Torkos: When I look at peoples’ medicine cabinets I see a cluttered mess. A lot of the bottles not necessarily organized well. In a lot of cases, people hang on to their expired medications. I’ve seen situations where people have kept medications that are 10 years beyond expiry.

Holley: So what should an organized and efficient medicine cabinet look like?

Torkos: Your medicine cabinet should be organized and it should be up to date and you should make sure that your medicine cabinet is not accessible to any young children. If there’s toddlers in the house it’s really important that you have locks on the cabinet doors so that little ones can’t get in there. It’s actually surprising the number of children that have managed to open safety caps on medications. In terms of what the cabinet should look like, you should have a wide arrangement of remedies available to treat common conditions that occur. For example, aches and pains, fever, headaches, tummy aches, cold and flu symptoms, those are the types of things when you have an issue and it’s coming on in the evening, you don’t want to run out to the pharmacy to grab something. Its great if you have something right on hand that you can use.

Holley: The environment of your bathroom also plays a part in where you keep certain drugs.

Torkos: Humidity can cause degradation or breakdown of the product, so I would not recommend storing any drugs, over the counter products, any vitamin supplements, in an environment that is warm and steamy. If your bathroom has a fan and everybody uses the fan, that’s not such a problem. You may want to look either to store it or have an alternative, a secondary bathroom that’s just a two piece bathroom where there’s no shower or bathtub that would be an option. A hall closet, a bedroom closet that’s up high, even a kitchen cabinet that is not close to a window or not near another stove would be another option.

Holley: Torkos says that you need to look at your O-T-C drugs every so often for their expiration dates. These are generally listed on the bottle with a lot number. But are pills that are just a few months past expiration dangerous or ineffective?

Torkos: Generally speaking there are products that are good for a period of time. It’s hard to see any hard and fast rules beyond the expiring date with the few exceptions. One exception would be Tetracycline, which is a prescription and an antibiotic. It can degrade or break down into potentially harmful compounds, so you should not take it. But in the case of most other drugs when they are used beyond expiry the only problem would be that you may not get the full amount of the product. For example, if you have acetaminophen 500 milligrams and you’re taking it a couple years beyond the expiration date, you may not have that full 500 milligrams; you may have a slightly lesser amount. But it’s not going to be toxic or problematic.

Holley: Most of us who take the same O-T-C meds year after year don’t bother to read the labels for drug interactions. However, if you start taking a prescription drug, Torkos says that O-T-C meds can sometimes interact with them.  She says you should always inform your doctor and your pharmacist about the meds and supplements you already have in your cabinet.

Torkos: That’s something that I typically do when I’m talking to a patient. When I take their prescription, or initial prescription if they’re a new patient, I ask them if they are taking anything over the counter — any vitamins or supplements, because those products can certainly interact with prescription medications. What I would advise people is that if you’re getting a prescription filled and the pharmacist does not ask you what other products you’re taking, then you should offer up that information. Also if you’re getting prescriptions filled at other pharmacies, it’s good to share that information so that everybody’s on the same page; everybody knows exactly what you’re taking.

Holley: These days, many Americans are opting for fewer of the familiar pain drugs and replacing them with natural remedies. Torkos says that there are pain relievers and anti-inflammatories that have few, if any, side effects that are still effective for a number of conditions.

Torkos: There’s been a lot of research into natural treatments for joint health. We’ve seen pharmacies and health food stores carry a lot of products like glucosamine and Chondroitin for joint health. But there are newer products that offer some advantages. One would be BioCell Collagen and BioCell Collagen is used for joint health. Another option that I would recommend is Curcumin. Curcumin is from the turmeric plant and it has natural anti-inflammatory properties, so it’s used for joint issues and it’s also used for even inflammatory bowel disease and a whole lot of other conditions.

Holley: Torkos says that products for coughs, colds and flu can also be switched over to natural remedies. She says that these are safe and effective, especially for children under six years of age.

Torkos: I would suggest having some vitamin C available if your feeling run down, you’re feeling on the verge of getting sick. Vitamin C is a very important anti-oxidant for the immune system, and it may help to shorten the duration or severity of symptoms. There are regular tablets and chewables, there are also effervescent powders, such as Emergen-C, which is a little sachet that you put into water. And children can take vitamin C as well. It’s safe for younger kids and same with zinc lozenges.

Holley: A remedy your grandmother might have used is ginger. Torkos says that real ginger ale or ginger capsules can help ease a queasy stomach. Melatonin is a natural remedy that’s become popular for sleep problems and for people on shift work who find it difficult to get to sleep at odd hours. One more word of advice. Torkos says that if you have just a few O-T-C pills left in a bottle, don’t be tempted to mix them in with the new bottle you just bought.

Torkos: The reason for that is if there is ever a drug recall the manufacturers always release the lot and expiry date for the product and that’s on the bottle. If you’re mixing a couple of different products together then you won’t know what products were affected by the recall. I think it’s good to keep them in the original bottle. That way you know what the lot and expiry date is in the event that something happens.

Holley: Torkos adds that your pharmacist is a good resource for questions about any drug prescriptions and O-T-C.  She says pharmacists have databases they use that can indicate drug interactions, expirations and safe use of drugs for children. For more information on Sherry Torkos, you can log onto her website at or through a link on our website, Our writer-producer this week is Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Nick Hofstra. I’m Lynn Holley.

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