Different drugs may have different storage needs, Brigid Groves, vice president of pharmacy practice and professional affairs at the American Pharmacists Association, tells TODAY.com.
And if medications are exposed to conditions — including temperatures — outside of the recommended range, they may lose their effectiveness.
Your first step should be looking for and following the manufacturer's recommended storage requirements for each individual medication, Amanda Savage, assistant professor at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, tells TODAY.com.
For medications that can be stored at room temperature, that generally means between 59 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit, Savage says. “Just make sure that they’re not exposed to direct sunlight or direct heat,” she explains. “So you wouldn’t want to keep them near a window or in places that might be a little warmer in your home.”
But some people might not have air conditioning or those temperature controls may not reach all parts of their home, Groves says. In those cases, she recommends people think about storing medications in areas of their home that do stay cooler, which might be shady areas or lower level or basement rooms.
Can heat make medications less effective?
Yes, the experts say.
Exposure to temperatures outside of the optimal range for each medication, whether that's too hot or too cold, can affect medications and potentially make them less effective.
"What we worry about is a loss of effectiveness due to a loss of potency of the medication," Savage says. That can be caused by an alteration in the chemical properties of the drug or some physical change to the actual medication, she explains.
You might notice oral tablets crumbling more easily, for instance, or gel caps sticking together. Liquids might look cloudier than normal, or maybe you notice an odd smell. Those are all signs that fluctuations in temperature or moisture may have affected the medication and it may no longer be as effective.
"That would sort of cue you in that there may have been some heat exposure or moisture exposure to your medications," Savage says, "and it may not be effective if you take those medications."
But when it comes to humidity, medications generally should be OK.
"Even with some of the higher humidity that we have been experiencing, the tablets, the capsules, etc., should remain intact unless they are physically dunked into a bowl of water," Groves says.
"Typically speaking, the way those medications are made nowadays, they have stabilizers and ways to keep them intact," she adds.
Medications that can be affected by heat:
Any medication that's kept outside of its recommended temperature range can potentially be affected.
For example, the experts noted that these common medications need to be stored with temperature in mind:
- Insulin typically needs to be refrigerated.
- Biologic medications, like monoclonal antibodies, often need to be refrigerated.
- Pediatric antibiotics may need to be refrigerated.
- Rescue medications such as asthma inhalers, EpiPens and nitroglycerin (which is also sensitive to light) need to be kept within strict temperature ranges.
Should you keep medications in a pillbox?
For many people, a pillbox or medication organizer can be a "powerful tool" to remind them to take their medications, Savage says. But some medications really need to be stored with special care, either because they need to be kept in their original packaging or they need to be refrigerated.
For example, some oral medications (like birth control pills) are dispensed in what pharmacists call "unit of use" or "unit dose" packaging, like a blister pack. "Because those unit-of-use packages provide some protection for the medication, you wouldn't want to pop that out of the packaging," Savage explains.
Groves recommends using a rubber band to keep medications that must be stored in their original packaging alongside those in a medication organizer. And for drugs that need to be refrigerated, "folks often will put a little sticky note to help them remember with their other pills," she says.
How to store medications properly:
"We want to think about how to properly store (medications) so that we minimize the loss of potency," Savage explains.
And that goes for both prescription and over-the-counter products, Groves adds.
- Check the storage instructions when you get a new medication, and talk to a pharmacist about temperature, light and moisture requirements.
- Avoid keeping medications in the bathroom. Despite the fact that bathrooms have something called a "medicine cabinet," Savage says, "the bathroom is one of the worst places that you can store your medications because of the fluctuations in temperature and humidity."
- Be careful about storing medications in the kitchen. Keep them away from heat-generating appliances in the kitchen, such as stoves, dishwashers and refrigerators.
- Instead, opt for cool, dark dry areas of the home, like the drawer of a nightstand.
- Keep medications in a safe place that's out of reach of kids.
- Keep medications out of direct sunlight.
- If you get medications delivered, bring them inside quickly or have someone else grab them for you to avoid letting them sit outside in hot weather. In a heat wave, consider picking them up at a local pharmacy instead, Groves suggests.
Proper storage should be part of any conversation you have with a pharmacist when you take new medications, the experts say. Those instructions should also be printed clearly on the medication label.
Groves recommends checking on how to store liquid products in particular. "Some of the liquid products belong in the refrigerator to keep them safe and stable, and some of them can stay at room temperature," she says.
If you have any concerns about changes in the way a medication looks, you can call the pharmacy or drug manufacturer for guidance.
"But also be aware that exposure to extreme heat or moisture may not change the medication visually," Savage says. So if you think your medications may have been exposed to high heat or humidity — even if you don't notice anything different about them — it's worth a call to be sure.