Every year, a number of adults and children end up in hospital, or occasionally even die, due to errors or reactions to medications. Following some basic safety tips with your medication can help prevent this from happening.
Every year more than 2000 people in New Zealand are admitted to hospital because of accidental poisoning. Common problems may arise from:
- using someone else’s empty bottles to store tablets
- not taking medicines as prescribed
- children finding medications that belong to their parents or grandparents.
If you follow the few rules below when using medicines, you can help keep everyone safe.
Keep medicines out of reach of children
It may be convenient to keep medicines in drawers and on benchtops, but it takes only a few minutes for toddlers and young children to happily help themselves. 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 that is hard for children to see and reach. Remember 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 doesn’t mean it’s safe for children to take, or if you take it 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 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.
Many medicines are now foil packed, especially those that 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's 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.
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 can be pre-sorted for you by the pharmacist into clear plastic bubbles – one for each time of day. This makes it less likely that you will organise them yourself at home in inappropriate containers.
Store 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.
Don't keep medicines in the fridge unless the label says so as you may destroy its effectiveness.
While the bathroom may be convenient, don't 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 that 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, should not be used. Do not take medicines:
- prescribed for someone else.
- that are past their use by date.
- that were prescribed for you months or years ago, even if you have the same condition now.
If you have new symptoms or a need for medication, talk to your doctor or pharmacist.
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.
Dispose of unwanted medicines regularly and safely
Add your medicine cabinet to your spring-cleaning list — if you have leftover 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.
Read more about how to dispose of unwanted medicines properly.
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 District Health Board, 2017
Use of medicines in New Zealand Health Quality and Safety Commission NZ, 2017