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Medicine safety tips

Safe use of medicines

Every year, pharmacists receive many phone calls about medicine problems that arise from misuse. Sometimes the problem will have been caused by using someone else’s empty bottles to store tablets, but far more frequently it involves children taking tablets that belong to their parents or grandparents. To children, many medicines look like lollies, and are an attractive target. Following the few rules below when using medicines will help keep everyone safe.

(Also see our website which explains all about pharmacy and over-the-counter medicines and the common conditions they are most useful for.)

Keep medicines out of the reach of children

Every year more than 2000 people in New Zealand 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 happily help themselves. Remember, young children have no idea about medicines - to them they look like attractive sweets.

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 two can be expert climbers!

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

If you think a child or someone who is in the house has taken a medicine not intended for them, call the National Poisons Centre on 0800 764 766 for advice, or call 111 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.

Always keep medicines in the original dispensing containers

Dispensed medicines leave the pharmacy labelled with the name of the person who is to take them, the dose and how often to take them. (See our topic Pharmacy labels - what do they mean?)

Many medicines are now foil packed, especially those which are particularly harmful to children, so it is important to leave them stored in the foil. Foil packing slows down the number of tablets that 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 same as the tablets described on the label. And, a big No No... never put medicines into food or drink containers.

Store medicines in a cool dry place, unless you are instructed otherwise

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 they've been affected by humidity and/or changing temperatures. Show them to your pharmacist before using them and ask about the best place to store them.

Medicines you should not take

It is sometimes tempting to use medicines that you have access to but which, strictly, should not be used. 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 doctor.

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 you collect a new medicine prescribed by your doctor, ask your pharmacist to explain it to you, including the best time to take it, and whether there are any special directions for use.

Finally, if you are taking five or more medicines or have trouble remembering which medicine to take when, consider asking for your medicines to be dispensed in a handy calendar pack. Your morning, noon and night doses are pre-sorted for you by the pharmacist into clear plastic bubbles - one for each time of day.

Dispose of unwanted medicines regularly and safely

If you have medicines that you are no longer using around the house, it is a good idea to dispose of them. Add your medicine cabinet to your spring-cleaning list - 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.


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


For a pdf version of this health topic click here.

The case of Mr and Mrs Jones

In the middle of a busy day, a pharmacist receives a phone called from one of the local doctors. "Hello, I wonder if you can help me identify a tablet," says Dr Green, "I have a Mr Jones with me, and the tablets he has brought with him do not look like the ones I prescribed."

Dr Green describes the tablets to the pharmacist who identifies them as diuretics, tablets that increase urine output. "What are they doing in this patient's tablet bottle with a label saying they are osteoarthritis tablets?” asks Dr Green.

Both the pharmacist and the doctor are baffled until Dr Green goes out into the waiting room and invites Mrs Jones into his office. She solves the mystery by admitting that she was tired of popping her diuretic pill out of the foil each day, and had decided to put a few weeks' supply into one of her husband's empty tablet bottles. Fortunately for Mr Jones, the medicine he took without realising it did him no harm, but someone else may not be so fortunate.

Original material provided by Pauline Hamilton, Dip. Pharm, MRPSGB. Reviewed by everybody, March 2006.

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