"Expired medication nearly claimed my Nan's life."

When was the last time you cleaned out your medicine cabinet? I’m willing to bet the answer falls somewhere between ‘ummmm…’ and ‘not since I moved into my place.’ Because let’s be honest — between work, family and trying to maintain a social life, who really has the time to regularly spring clean their medicine cabinet?

I used to think it was no big deal. What’s the worst that can happen — you accidentally take some old medicine and it doesn’t work as well? But as I found out two weeks ago, when expired medication nearly claimed my Nan’s life, the worst case scenario is far more terrifying.

It all started when my grandma, Kathleen, came down with a bladder infection. At 79 years old, she doesn’t drive and was too proud to ask one of us to take her to the doctor. So, she rummaged through her medicine cabinet and found some antibiotics she’d been prescribed a few years ago for the same condition. Figuring they’d do the trick, she started taking them.

But a week later, she realised she wasn’t getting any better. In fact, she was feeling much worse. It got to the point where she got stuck in the middle of the shopping centre because she was in so much pain she couldn’t walk. The poor thing was mortified. It all came to a head on a Saturday afternoon when she started bleeding. She called me on the verge of tears and said she needed to go to the hospital. I dropped what I was doing and drove her there right away.

can you take expired medication
Sienna and Nan, Kathleen. Image: supplied.

Nan showed the doctor the antibiotics she’d been taking. “This is more than a year out of date,” the doctor pointed out. He explained that the antibiotics were doing nothing to heal the infection, which is why her symptoms were getting worse. If we hadn’t gone in to the hospital when we did, the infection could have spread to her kidneys. He also told us that certain expired medications are at risk of bacterial growth, which can lead to more serious health issues. But the scariest part was that if Nan had accidentally taken expired painkillers, it could have been fatal.

The doctor gave Nan a new batch of antibiotics and, luckily, the infection cleared within a few days. It was such a relief — I love my Nan to bits and I can’t imagine losing her over a silly mistake. As soon as we got back to Nan’s place, I cleared out her medicine cabinet — there were heaps of expired medications in there and other stuff that she just didn’t need anymore. I tried to explain the problem with out-of-date medication to Nan but I don’t think she really understood what I was going on about. She was too busy thinking about the hot doctor at the hospital.


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Back in our grandparents’ or even our parents’ day, expiry dates weren’t a big thing. They were considered more of a guideline. That’s why it’s our responsibility as grandchildren and children to keep an eye on their medicine collection. My Nan lives by herself and before this happened, I always made sure that her place was warm enough or that she had enough food. But I never thought to check her medicines.

Taking unwanted or expired medication isn’t just a health hazard for oldies. According to the Poisons Information Centre, more than 5000 children end up in hospital due to medicine poisonings every year in Australia. With some medication, it only takes one pill for it be life-threatening for a small child. That’s why it’s so important not only to keep it out of their reach, but to get rid of any medication you’re no longer using.

Often, the reason we keep old medications in our homes is because we don’t know how to properly dispose of them. We get the feeling that they’re probably not meant to go in the garbage or down the sink — which is right, as this can lead to environmental damage or contaminate our waterways.

Luckily, the correct way to get rid of unwanted medicines is just as easy. All you need to do is take your unwanted and expired medicines to your local pharmacy and the pharmacist will put them in a secure bin for collection and safe disposal. That’s it! It only takes around five minutes, but could potentially save a life — or at the very least, save you a trip to the emergency department.

For information on how to safely dispose of expired and unwanted medication, please visit the RUM Project website.