Medicines – safety tips

Many people take a number of medicines that help them manage conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, or pain relief. Every year, however, a number of adults and children end up in hospital or occasionally even die due to errors or reactions to medications.

Common problems may arise from:

  • Using someone else’s empty bottles to store tablets.
  • Not taking medicines as prescribed (instructions may be confusing).
  • Children finding medications that belong to their parents or grandparents; to children, many medicines look like lollies.

Follow the few rules below when using medicines to help keep everyone safe. 

Keep medicines out of 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 young children to happily 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 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.undefined

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 packaging 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. Never put medicines into food or drink containers.

undefinedStore medicines in a cool dry place, unless instructed otherwise

Most medicines can be kept at room temperature. However some need to be stored in the fridge or have special storage conditions.

Do not keep medicines in the fridge unless the label says so; otherwise it may destroy it's effectiveness.

While the bathroom may be convenient, do not store medicines there. The steam and humidity from baths and showers can stop them working as well as they should.

If you notice any pills are moist and powdery, show them to your pharmacist before using them. They may have been damaged by moisture or changing temperatures.

Medicines you should not take

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

  • Medicine prescribed for someone else.
  • Tablets or medications that are out of date.
  • Medications prescribed for you months or years ago that were stopped.

If you have new symptoms or a need for medication, get it checked properly.

undefinedRead & 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 & safely

Add your medicine cabinet to your spring-cleaning list — if you have left over medicines anywhere, take them to your local pharmacy for safe disposal. Don't get rid of medicines in rubbish bags, bins or down the toilet. This can cause problems elsewhere.

By following the rules above, you could save yourself (or someone else) a lot of worry, and get the most out of your medicines. Read more about how to dispose of unwanted medicines properly.

Learn more

Medication Safety Health Quality and Safety Commission NZ, 2014
Patient Guide for safe use of medicines (English), (Chinese), (Korean) SafeRx, Waitemata DHB, 2013
Dispose of unwanted medicines properly (D.U.M.P) SafeRx, Waitemata DHB, 2017

Credits: Editorial team. Last reviewed: 10 Jul 2017