The American Recall Center, in celebration of “Patient Safety Awareness Week,” is holding a “Medicine Cabinet Clean-Out Challenge.” For this event, they have asked a few “influential bloggers” (their words, not mine) to write an article about responsibly using your medications and sharing some personal experiences. They asked yours truly to participate, and I was more than happy to oblige. I know it is coming a couple days late, but today’s article is the piece I wrote for their “challenge.” I hope you enjoy it, and that it makes you think about your own pharmaceutical use.
In the first part of this article, you started learning about how important it is to be a responsible consumer when it comes to pharmaceuticals. We are quite fortunate to have so many incredible drugs right at our fingertips, but these life-improving medications can quickly become dangerous, life-threatening poisons if not used in the proper way. When we left off, we had covered the first aspect of being a responsible consumer by discussing how to properly store your medications. You also began reading about the second component of proper drug use, taking your medicines correctly. Due to the powerful, and potentially dangerous, effects that your meds can have on you, it is vital that you take all of your medications properly, because mistakes can be extremely harmful, and sometimes, fatal. This is something that I had to experience firsthand several years ago, and in an effort to drive this point home, I am going to share my story with you today. I will then move on to the final aspect of responsible pharmaceutical use, properly disposing of your medications.
My second experience with taking my medications incorrectly was a much more serious situation than my first, which you read about in part one, and it is the main reason I am so careful with my meds today. About four years ago, my chronic pain got much worse, and I began working with my doctor to try to find a combination of painkillers that would better control my discomfort. Over several weeks and after trying multiple “cocktails” of pain meds, we eventually found a three drug combination that worked well. After a couple weeks of being on this mixture of painkillers, my pain was under control, but some strange things started happening to me. I first started seeing and hearing things that were not there. Initially, it was barely noticeable, but over time these imaginary sights and sounds turned into full fledged hallucinations. Over time it got so bad that I could not always tell what was real and what was not, and I thought I was going crazy. I was obviously terrified by this, and after speaking with my doctor, I thankfully found out that I was not losing my mind, but I was damaging it. It turns out that two of the painkillers he had put me on could have dangerous interactions that cause seizures in certain parts of the brain. In some cases, these seizures can cause audiovisual hallucinations. While I feel fortunate that no permanent damage was done and everything went back to normal after I stopped taking one of the drugs, this was a very dangerous drug interaction that could have had much more dire consequences. Even though my doctor and my pharmacist should have caught this potentially life threatening drug interaction before it ever happened, in the end it is my life and well-being that is at risk, so I am responsible for being knowledgeable about the medications I am taking. And once again, if I had merely taken a few minutes to read about my medications before taking them, I could have avoided this entire situation. I hope this story helps you understand how important it is to be a knowledgeable consumer when it comes to taking your medications, and that it is your responsibility to make sure that you are taking your drugs in a proper and safe manner.
Disposing of Your Medications
In addition to containing the instructions for safe and proper use of your medications, the paperwork that accompanies every medicine you obtain also has pertinent information about how to dispose of your drugs correctly, which is the third aspect of being a responsible pharmaceutical consumer. While we do not often consider how we should dispose of our unused meds as an important part of using our medications, this is a critical aspect of responsible drug use. One of the main reasons we do not think about the process is that you usually take the entire container before drugs expire. Every now and then however, you will find that a drug you rarely take has reached its expiration date, or you will try a prescription medicine that does not work and switch to a different drug before finishing the first, and in these types of situations it is important to make sure that you discard these expired and unneeded medicines in the proper way. Depending on the type of medication being discarded and where you live, the guidelines for how to best dispose of various drugs can differ, so it is crucial to familiarize yourself with the specific process in your area. While the rules do differ by region to some extent though, there are some general steps that you can follow to get rid of your unneeded drugs in a responsible and safe way.
The first step to proper drug disposal is to be aware of your medications’ expiration dates, which can be found on the container’s label and the accompanying paperwork with the drug. Just like food, medicine does go bad after a certain length of time. The shelf life is different for every drug, but most meds that are taken orally and are not refrigerated last at least six months, if not longer. As I said before, since most meds have such a long lifespan, you will usually finish the entire bottle before they go bad, but occasionally you will have drugs that last beyond their expiration date. Once again, just like food that has reached its “use by” date, if a medicine has expired, it should always be discarded. You should never take expired medications, as they often have lost their effectiveness and could be dangerous for consumption. It is always best to properly dispose of the expired drug and get a new, fresh supply. This will not only ensure that you do not take a potentially harmful expired medication, but it will also guarantee that the drugs you take will have the potency and effect that you expect.
Once you have identified that one of your drugs has expired or should otherwise be discarded, the next step is to properly dispose of the medicine. Since depending on where you live the guidelines can differ, before you discard any meds the first thing you should do is talk to your pharmacist or contact your city’s trash service office to learn about any local guidelines for proper drug disposal. For example, I used to live in a city that had a “drug take-back program” that would allow you to bring in any unwanted medication to a certain, pre-designated location, and they would take the drugs and properly dispose of them for you, no questions asked. Once you are aware of any local regulations, the next step is to consult the paperwork that is with the medicine. If there are any specific instructions for discarding the drug, like flushing it down the toilet (never do this unless specifically stated), it will be clearly identified and explained in this documentation. If there are no specific instructions listed, you can safely throw away the unneeded meds in the following manner. Remove the medications from their original containers and put them in a resealable plastic bag. Next, add a large amount of any unappealing, inedible substance (dish soap, kitty litter, coffee grounds, etc.) to the bag and mix it with the unwanted medications. This will make your discarded drugs undesirable to animals and unusable to people who may be dumpster diving. You can then dispose of this sealed bag in any trash can. Following these general rules will ensure that you are doing your part to properly dispose of your unwanted medications, and it will complete the process of being a responsible pharmaceutical consumer.
I will admit, for me personally, this is the part of being a responsible medication consumer that I struggle with most. I do not like wasting anything, whether it be time, food, or medicine. On top of that, I am a bit of a pack rat, and I can always come up with some outlandish, hypothetical reason to hang on to something. These personality traits often make it difficult for me to get myself to throw away unused prescription drugs that I stop taking before I finish them. I always think to myself, “What if I end up trying this medication again in a few months at a higher dose? Why waste such expensive medicine?” Even though I know I should discard the old meds, these thoughts have caused me on occasion to save my unneeded prescription drugs long after I stopped taking them. The funny thing is that I have never had a situation arise where I actually wound up using any medications I have saved “just in case,” and I always end up throwing these drugs away a year later anyway, when they finally expire. While this may not be the best way to go about things, I do always follow the proper guidelines for disposing of my meds, even if I do it a year late. I am a work in progress, I guess.
You are now fully equipped to become a responsible pharmaceutical user. You have learned how to correctly store your medications, and you are more aware of the dangers associated with taking your medicines in an improper way. You also now know how to dispose of your expired and unneeded drugs in a safe and responsible manner. Following the information contained within these three aspects of responsible medication use will allow you to take advantage of the huge health benefits that modern pharmaceuticals can provide, while also ensuring that you are doing so in a safe way. Remember that it is up to you, as the person using these medications, to be knowledgeable about your meds and how to properly use them. Take the time to read the documentation that accompanies every drug you buy, because spending a few minutes reading these pamphlets could be the difference between life and death. My final piece of advice is to use common sense and trust your instincts. If you ever get even a tiny feeling that you may be using a medicine improperly, do not take it and consult your pharmacist or physician. If you do that, and do your best to follow the guidelines described above, you will not only be a responsible consumer of pharmaceuticals, but you will also have a much happier, healthier life.