When you’re not feeling well, the first stop is usually the medicine cabinet, which might hold antibiotics leftover from prior illnesses. But, before you take a dose of previous medication, read why UnityPoint Health provider, James Ausfahl, MD, says opting for convenience might not help you feel better faster.
Risks of Reusing Medication
Dr. Ausfahl acknowledges patients would find it easier to take medication that worked for them in the past, rather than scheduling an appointment and seeing a provider. However, he says the symptoms most patients experience aren’t necessarily the type that antibiotics can treat. If a patient is fighting off a virus, taking antibiotics won’t help kick the bug at all.
“Taking a short, incomplete course of antibiotics mostly disrupts things without fixing them,” Dr. Ausfahl says. “Last time's medication might work, but if your body is trying to get rid of a virus, it probably won't, and it might actually make the problem worse. At best, reusing medication will delay getting the right diagnosis and will prevent receiving the correct treatment."
Dr. Ausfahl also says just because your symptoms seem similar to what you experienced in the past doesn’t mean you’re fighting off the same illness. In addition, you can risk giving yourself the wrong dose of medication or the wrong medication altogether.
“No medication is without risk, and the proper dose plays a huge role in keeping antibiotics safe. Only an experienced provider can make the right call about what dose is appropriate for a patient’s illness, as well as how long a patient should take the medication,” Dr. Ausfahl says.
If used as prescribed, patients should only have leftover antibiotics for a couple reasons.
“Typically, there are only two situations for a patient to have extra medication: if the patient experiences a negative side effect or an allergic reaction to the antibiotic, or if after a few days on the prescription, the patient is not showing signs of improvement and his/her prescription is adjusted to a different antibiotic,” Dr. Ausfahl says.
What to Do with Leftover Antibiotics
Dr. Ausfahl shares two steps he recommends when cleaning out your medicine cabinet:
- Expiration dates. Look at the packaging. If it's in a prescription bottle, especially if it's sitting in the medicine cabinet, in the bathroom or on a shelf in the kitchen, then the medication is not safe to use. The same goes for multiple-dose containers with a broken seal. However, research suggests medication in sealed, single-dose packs can keep for upwards of five years of more. Dr Ausfahl cautions that it’s truly hard to know if a seal is airtight.
- Remove and prepare to dispose. Check local resources to find places within your community where it is safe to take old or unused medication. Do not try dispose of them in your own home by flushing them, running them down the garbage disposal, etc. Safely getting rid of past medication helps keep the environment safe and helps prevent others from taking something they shouldn’t.
If you or someone in your family are not feeling well and your symptoms are mild, Dr. Ausfahl recommends trying over-the-counter medications you might have in your home. But, for persistent or worsening symptoms, you need to contact your UnityPoint Health provider to schedule an appointment. Your provider can help you feel better, faster.
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