Medicines - tips for the safe use of medicines

Every year, pharmacists receive many phone calls about problems that arise from misuse of medicines. This is usually accidental. Sometimes the problem is caused by a person using someone else’s empty bottles to store tablets, but far more often it involves a child taking tablets that belong to their parents or grandparents. To children, many medicines look like lollies, and are attractive to them.

By following a few rules, you could save yourself (or someone else) a lot of worry, get the most out of your medicines and keep everyone safe.

Always keep medicines in their original containers

Many medicines are now foil packed, especially those that are particularly harmful to children, so it is important to leave them stored in the foil. Foil packaging reduces the number of tablets children can gain access to if they are playing with them. Foil packaging also protects some medicines from damage caused by humidity in the atmosphere.

If you find foil packs difficult to manage, your pharmacist can look at the type of medicine and decide whether it is safe to pop the tablets out for you. If it is safe to do so, the pharmacist will put them in a suitable container that is easier to manage, and has all the relevant details on the label.

Don’t pop them out yourself at home and put them into an old bottle; someone may take them, not realising that they are not the tablets described on the label. And never put medicines into food or drink containers.

Also, medicines dispensed by a pharmacist leave the pharmacy labelled with important information: the name of the person who is to take them, the dose and how often to take them.

Keep medicines out of the reach of children

Every year thousands of people in Australia are admitted to hospital because of accidental poisoning. It may be convenient to keep medicines in drawers and on bench-tops, but it takes only a few minutes for toddlers and other young children to help themselves. Remember, young children have no idea about medicines — to them they look like lollies.

The best place to keep medicines is in a high, locked cabinet. If this is not possible, keep them in a place where it will be difficult for children to see and reach, but keep in mind that children over the age of 2 can be expert climbers.

All medicines can be dangerous, especially in overdose. Just because you can buy a medicine in the pharmacy or supermarket (such as paracetamol and aspirin) it does not mean it is safe if taken by children or incorrectly.

Poisons Information Centre

If you think a child or someone who is in the house has taken a medicine not intended for them, call the Poisons Information Centre on 131 126 for advice, or call 000 for an ambulance. They will tell you what to do.

If you have to take the child to hospital, take the medicine and the container with you. This will give the hospital good information about the medicine.

Medicines you should not take

It is sometimes tempting to use medicines that you have access to but which, should not be used by you. These include someone else’s medicines, medicines that are out of date, and medicines that were once prescribed for you but were stopped. Do not take any of these. If you have a new need, discuss this with your pharmacist or doctor.

Store in a cool dry place, unless advised differently

Most medicines can be kept at room temperature. However, some require either refrigeration or special storage conditions. Do not keep medicines in the fridge unless the label says so; this may destroy their effectiveness.

It is best to store medicines outside of the bathroom, as steam and humidity from showers and baths may reduce the effectiveness of some drugs. If your pills are moist and powdery, that’s an indication that they’ve been affected by humidity or changing temperatures. Show them to your pharmacist before using them and ask about the best place to store them.

Read and follow the directions on the label

Some medicines have special instructions that need to be followed to reduce or avoid side effects. When using a new medicine (particularly if it is a prescription medicine) ask your pharmacist to explain it to you, including the best time to take it, and whether there are any special directions for use.

Dispose of unwanted medicines regularly and safely

If you have medicines around the house that you are no longer using, it is a good idea to dispose of them. Add your medicine cabinet to your spring-cleaning list, and if you have left-over medicines there, take them to your local pharmacy for disposal. Don't dispose of medicines in rubbish bags or bins. People may find them at rubbish tips, or in your rubbish.

Last Reviewed: 23 July 2010

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