It's Hot Outside: Are You Cooking Your Rx?

August 15, 2016

By Amanda Guffey, PharmD, BCPS

South Carolinians know the importance of keeping themselves cool during the hot summer months, but it is often forgotten that our medications need to stay cool, too!

At what temperature should medications be stored?

Room temperature is the rule of thumb for medications unless there are other specific directions. However, most medications are safe in temperatures of 58 to 86 degrees. During South Carolina summers, temperatures can easily exceed 86 degrees, especially in closed spaces such as a car or luggage. It is also important to store medications in a dry place to prevent damage from moisture. Therefore, the “medicine” cabinet in a bathroom is actually not a good choice due to the humidity from showering.

How does the heat affect medications?

Heat or humidity can "break down" medication ingredients causing a loss of potency. This makes the medication less effective, which can be especially dangerous when a patient continues taking it without the medication working at full strength. Also, be mindful of the expiration date for the medication. The expiration date assumes proper storage, so the medication may expire earlier if left in hot, humid conditions.

Are there signs the medication has been damaged by heat?

If the medication has changed color or consistency (soft, chipped or crumbled) or is sticking together, this can indicate heat damage. Unfortunately, many times there are no obvious signs that the medication has suffered heat damage.

Which medications should I be most worried about?

All medication is at risk of damage by heat. However, it is especially important that medications used to treat chronic illnesses are stored properly to ensure the appropriate dose for the health of the patient. For example, small changes in the potency of thyroid hormones, insulin, and blood thinners such as Coumadin can have a significant effect on how well they work for the patient. Other medications, such as nitroglycerin tablets for chest pain, are used in life-threatening situations, making the potency of the tablet extremely important.

What are recommendations for ensuring that medications are stored at the correct temperature?

Medications should be stored at home at room temperature, unless otherwise specified. If patients need to take their medications when they are away from home, the medications should stay with the patient in a purse or bag since people typically stay in comfortable temperatures. Medications that need to stay refrigerated, like insulin, should be transported in a cooler bag with an ice pack when traveling long distances. Do not store medications in the bathroom, a car, or checked luggage during travel.

Amanda Guffey is a board-certified clinical pharmacist specializing in cardiology and has been with Providence Health since July 2011. She lives in West Columbia with her husband, 4 month old daughter, and two dogs.