Arthritis Today

How to Properly Store Your Meds

These smart storage tips keep drugs safe and effective.


Many people with arthritis rely on medications to relieve pain, reduce inflammation and prevent further joint damage. But if those medicines aren’t properly stored they may not work as promised?

The fact is, exposure to light, humidity, and extreme temperatures can break down both prescription and over-the-counter drugs, making them less effective. Altered medicines can even turn toxic, although that's uncommon, says Philip Chan, a pharmacist at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Pharmacy.

"When most drugs break down, the result isn't toxicity. The main concern is loss of potency and efficacy. For people with a chronic illness, medicine that doesn't work can be life-threatening," he says.

Yet storing medications safely can be challenging, especially since many drugs have unique requirements that may not mesh easily with the demands of everyday life.

"Storage conditions for drugs vary," Chan says. "Biologics, unopened insulin, and a number of other injectables need refrigeration. Other drugs, such as nabumetone, or Ralafen, are fine at room temperature but are sensitive to light and moisture."

He stresses that pharmacists should clearly communicate to patients how to store their medications. And patients should read – and save – the information that comes with their prescriptions, as well as take advantage of the counseling session with their pharmacist.

Chan also offers these suggestions.

Avoid bathroom cabinets
"The bathroom isn't a great place to store medications because of the high heat and humidity," he says. A better choice is a kitchen counter or cabinet away from children's reach, sunlight, and heat sources, such as the stove and refrigerator.

Another option is a drawer in a bedroom bureau, provided it's used every day so pills aren't forgotten. Chan says that some people recommend storing medicine in boxes or closets, but that isn’t always the best choice because out of sight can mean out of mind. A better choice? “The kitchen is a place people always come back to," he says.

Temperature control
Manufacturers guarantee efficacy when medicine is stored at 68 to 77 degrees, but 58 to 86 degrees is usually fine, Chan says. Outside that range, medications can start to degrade. Biologics, increasingly used to treat arthritis, and hormone-containing drugs, such as thyroid or birth control pills, are especially likely to break down in heat. Insulin is destroyed by both freezing and overheating.

Chan points out that one of the biggest mistakes people make is leaving
medications in a parked car, which can become scorching or frigid in a matter of minutes. "Make the drugstore your last stop of the day," he advises.

At home, be sure to refrigerate drugs that need it. The shelf life of Enbrel vials, for example, is less than seven days at room temperature but significantly longer under refrigeration. The same is true for most drugs that require cold storage.

Chan stresses that glucose meters and diagnostic testing strips are as sensitive to heat, cold, and moisture as medications are. "If these devices are exposed to extreme temperatures, you're not going to get an accurate reading," he says.

Drugs in transit
In summer, the interior of a mailbox can reach more than 130 degrees; in winter, it's an industrial-strength freezer. If you mail order drugs, choose overnight shipping, and if possible, have them sent to your office.

When traveling, always put medications in your carry-on luggage. Baggage can get lost, and baggage holds on airplanes aren't temperature controlled; checked bags can sizzle or freeze on the tarmac. Many manufacturers provide no-cost travel packs for refrigerated medicines.

If the worst happens
Sometimes it's obvious when a pill is altered – the color, texture, or shape has changed – but not always.

If you have any doubts about a medication, contact your pharmacist. As for refrigerated medicine left out for an extended period, contact the manufacturer or discard it and get a new supply.

In the long run, Chan says, the challenge is balancing safe storage with ease of use. "A medication is no help if people can't find it or forget to take it," he says.