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Medicine Cabinet Clutter - Part 1

Dear Jo the Clutterbuster:

The change in the season is always accompanied by colds and the flu. I’d like to minimize my midnight treks to the all night drug store when I can’t find what I need in my medicine cabinet, the linen closet, the kitchen cupboard or my purse.

Can you help prevent malpractice in my home?


House Doctor

Dear Doc:

Many de-cluttering and organizing projects require a great deal of time and energy to finish. However, medicine cabinets, although often brimming with contents, are small enough to tackle in a few hours. And, completing this task may help save someone’s life.

Set up a work surface in or near the bathroom. If this project may take more than a few hours and there are young persons at home, set up the workspace in a room that can be locked.

Place the contents of the medicine cabinet, adjacent drawers and other spaces in which medicines, make up, etc. are stored onto the work surface.

Set aside all make up and non-medicine related items. (These items will be addressed in Insights: Medicine Cabinet Clutter - Part 2.) Divide the remaining medicines and first aid items into prescription and non-prescription.

Gather a shoe box or plastic container for everyone (including your pets) who live in your home. Label each with the name of the individual. Be sure to have a trash can for items to be disposed of. (I will discuss proper disposal techniques later in this article.) You may need a magnifier to complete this first step.

Prescription Drugs:

Sort the prescription drugs into the individual containers according to the person for whom they are intended. Read each label carefully to determine its “discard date.” Place the discards in the trashcan.

Continue this process until you have reviewed every prescription drug. At the end of this task, each person in your home will have an individual container of prescription drugs. Create a list for each person in an “Emergency Information” notebook, a file on your computer or thumb drive or your PDA.

Non-Prescription Drugs:

We often buy an over-the-counter drug for a particular symptom, but only use it one or two times. It then sits in our medicine cabinet loosing its efficacy over time. If it has been more years than you can remember since you needed to put eardrops in a small child’s ear, you can let the drops go. If the cough medicine is for 10 – 12 year olds and everyone in your home is over 30, discard it. Once again, check the “discard date.” Place the discards in the trashcan with the discarded prescription medicines. Make a list of items to replace.


Recent United States Geological Survey studies have found traces of painkillers, estrogen, antidepressants, blood-pressure medicines, etc. in water samples from 30 states. Studies have linked hormone exposure to reproductive defects in fish, and environmental exposure to antibiotics to the development of drug-resistant germs.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the American Pharmacists Association, and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America have created the SMARXT DISPOSAL campaign to educate consumers about how to dispose of medicines in a safe and environmentally protective manner.

Although most drugs can be thrown in the household trash, you should take certain precautions before tossing them out. When discarding unused medications:

  • If no instructions are given, take them out of their original containers and mix them with an undesirable substance, such as used coffee grounds or kitty litter. The medication will be less appealing to children and pets and unrecognizable to people who may intentionally go through your trash.
  • Put them in a sealable bag, empty can, or other container to prevent the medication from leaking or breaking out of a garbage bag.
  • The same disposal methods for prescription drugs apply to over-the-counter drugs as well.
  • Remove and destroy ALL identifying personal information (prescription label) from all medication containers before recycling them or throwing them away.

The FDA recommends Disposal by Flushing of a small number of medications. See their web site: http://www.fda.gov/drugs/resourcesforyou/consumers. Do not flush prescription drugs down the toilet unless instructed by the manufacturer.


Medicine "take-back" programs offer a safe disposal alternative. Due to the high cost of medicines, medicine donation internet sites, as well as non profits, are beginning to proliferate. Some hospice organizations accept unopened packets of pain medicines. Ask your physician or contact your local hospice for information about medicine donation.

Preparation for Emergencies

Now, that the contents of your medicine cabinet reflect the current needs of your household, you are ready to create Emergency Kits. In preparation, purchase at least 3 clear containers. Refer to Insights: Medicine Cabinet Clutter – Part 2 for how to create emergency kits. Don’t worry: You will also learn what to do with the piles of make up and medicine cabinet detritus.