Safely storing a senior’s meds can be a challenge, especially during the summer and winter months. But, did you know that exposure to extreme temperatures could render medications ineffective or even dangerous?

Prescription and over-the-counter drugs come with inserts that detail storage guidelines, but as caregivers know all too well, mishaps happen. What happens if you accidentally leave a prescription in the car all day? What should you do if the power goes out and you can’t refrigerate a medication that says, “keep refrigerated?”

Papatya Tankut, Vice President of Pharmacy Affairs for CVS Health, answers some common questions surrounding the proper storage of prescription medications.

Temperature Guidelines for Storing Medications

According to Tankut, the ideal temperature for most medications is room temperature—anywhere between 68 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit. However, some medications commonly prescribed to seniors have specific storage instructions that caregivers should be aware of, including the following examples.

  • Inhaled medications: Brovana, Foradil
  • Injectable drugs for diabetes: Insulin, Byetta, Victoza, Symlin
  • Eye drops: Azacite, Phospholine Iodide, Travatan and Travatan Z, Xalatan
  • Other meds: Copaxone, Forteo, Fortical (calcitonin Nasal spray), Octreotide

You can check the particular directions for these and hundreds of other prescriptions on the National Institutes of Health drug information website.

What Happens When Medications Aren’t Stored Correctly?

Prescriptions that are subjected to extremely hot or cold temperatures can lose their effectiveness prior to their printed expiration date, Tankut says. That’s why she suggests not storing a senior’s meds where they might be exposed to temperatures that fall outside of the suggested range. Therefore, avoid leaving medications (both prescription and over the counter) in the car, on a windowsill, in a garage or outside storage shed, or (if you’re traveling) inside checked baggage.

When choosing a storage method or location, keep in mind that many medications can also be affected by exposure to direct sunlight and humidity.

Refrigerating Medications During a Power Outage

Refrigeration is the suggested method of storage for certain prescriptions, such as eye drops and insulin. But, depending on where your loved one lives, a summer storm or winter white-out can cause a loss of power and jeopardize these medications.

In this situation, Tankut suggests avoiding opening the refrigerator door unless it is absolutely necessary. This will help keep the contents of the fridge cool for as long as possible. If it is safe to leave the home, contact nearby friends or family members to see if their power is still on, and ask if they can store the medications until your power is restored.

If the power goes out for more than a few hours, you should discard any medications that require refrigeration. The only exception to this rule, according to Tankut, would be if your loved one needs a particular prescription in order to live, such as insulin for a person who has diabetes. In these instances, she says it’s better to use the medication that you have until a fresh supply becomes available. Replace any potentially compromised medications with a new prescription as soon as you possibly can.

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How to Determine if Medications Have Been Exposed to Extreme Temperatures

A medication may or may not show outward signs of temperature damage. Tankut cautions caregivers to be on the lookout for meds that smell funny, are discolored, are unusually hard or soft to the touch, pills that are cracked, chipped, or stuck together, and creams that show indications of separation. However, depending on the prescription and how long it was exposed to hot or cold temperatures, it may not look any different. In these cases, the only indication that you may have that a medication has been compromised is if your loved one’s symptoms start reappearing.

What to Do if You Suspect a Medication May Be Damaged

Tankut urges caregivers to contact their loved one’s pharmacist if they suspect that a senior’s meds have been subjected to extreme temperatures. The pharmacist will be able to tell you if the medication needs to be discarded, and they can also help you order a replacement prescription.