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Checkup for Your Medicine Cabinet

Got old vitamins, expired meds, questionable supplements? Here's how to take stock — and stay safe

Beware expired medications in your medicine cabinet

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Know what expiration dates mean, and when it's time to trash medications.

En español | Check your expiration dates

Prescription medications have expiration dates on their original containers, but your pharmacist is required only to put a "Discard by" date on the bottle; this date is usually one year from the date the prescription is filled. So the medication may actually be good for longer than you think. Certain meds should never be used beyond their expiration dates: oral nitroglycerin (for chest pain), insulin, inhalers and EpiPens. Other drugs you should ensure are full strength include anticonvulsants, warfarin, digoxin and thyroid preparations.

Do now: Ask your pharmacist if the medication can be used safely beyond the "Discard by" date. If your medicine is in its original packaging, look for the expiration date stamped on the side or bottom. If the expiration date has passed, it's time to get rid of the drug.

Insomnia and allergy medications can create problems with memory and decision-making

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Those who take certain insomnia and allergy medications long term are more likely to have problems with memory and decision-making.

Know the dangers of common painkillers

Some analgesics, including Advil (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen), can trigger a heart attack or stroke. Ibuprofen and naproxen can also increase bleeding risk and bump up blood pressure, explains cardiologist Lawrence Phillips of the New York University Langone Medical Center. Studies show that acetaminophen can cause liver damage, especially when taken with alcohol. If your physician has prescribed powerful opioid medications, such as OxyContin or Percocet, follow his or her orders strictly on dosage and frequency.

Do now: For chronic pain, try nondrug treatments like physical therapy, exercise, weight loss and cold therapy. Store opioids in a locked box or small safe to avoid theft and exposing children to these potentially addictive drugs.

Beware of risky herbals

Herbal supplements can interact with certain prescription medications, causing dangerous side effects. Alex Luli, outpatient pharmacist at the Cleveland Clinic, recommends being especially cautious with these:

  • St.-John's-wort. It can interfere with statins and high blood pressure medications.
  • Ginkgo and ginseng. These can interact with blood-thinning meds and increase the risk of bleeding.
  • Kava. It has been shown to cause liver damage.

Do now: Bring a comprehensive list, or a bag filled with your medications and herbal and vitamin supplements, to your doctor or pharmacist, who can evaluate them for side effects and potentially dangerous interactions.

Herbal supplements can interact negatively with certain prescription medications

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Herbal supplements can interact negatively with certain prescription medications.

Don't overdose on everyday vitamins

Watch daily limits on:

  • Vitamin B6. More than 100 milligrams a day can cause temporary nerve damage.
  • Vitamin A. More than 10,000 international units (IUs) may bring on vomiting, headache, dizziness and blurry vision.
  • Vitamin D. More than 10,000 IUs a day may cause symptoms ranging from poor appetite to frequent urination and kidney problems.
  • Vitamin C. One study found that regularly consuming high doses doubles a man's risk for developing kidney stones.

Do now: Check labels to make sure you're not taking more than the recommended dose.

Cut back on allergy and sleeping pills

Studies have shown that those who take certain insomnia and allergy medications long term — including such products as Benadryl and Nytol — are more likely to have problems with memory and decision-making, plus have a higher risk of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease.

Do now: Talk to your doctor about other therapies to treat insomnia and seasonal allergies. And for more on sleep strategies, click here.