Bladder infections are not an uncommon occurrence for Kathleen.
Rather than go to her doctor or bother her family, the 79-year-old decided to take matters into her own hands. She rifled through her medicine cabinet and took old antibiotics from a previous infection.
Her grand-daughter, Sienna, received a phone call from Kathleen a couple of weeks ago after her condition deteriorated.
“She thought something was really wrong so she called me,” recalls Sienna, who drove Kathleen straight to hospital. “Her prognosis got worse and it was because she took out-of-date medicine.”
About 60 per cent of Australians have old or unwanted medicines, according to a report by Griffith University. Despite the fact that nearly 40 per cent of the medicines were expired, the primary reason people kept them was in case they needed to use them again.
“Medicines don’t generally become toxic after the expiry date, the risks relate to having medicines that aren’t in current use around the house,” explains Jared Brown, department head of the NSW Poisons Information Centre.
The NSW Poisons Information Centre receives about 250 calls a year from adults who have taken expired medicines while more than 5000 children are admitted to hospital each year with medicine poisoning.
To minimise the risk of accidental poisoning or medication mismanagement, Federal Government-funded initiative, Return Unwanted Medicines has launched a new campaign urging Australians to safely dispose of old or expired medicine.
“The expiry date is generally based on the known activity of the medicine up to that date,” Mr Brown explains. “Beyond that there are medicines that become less active and can then not have their intended therapeutic effect, so that can occasionally become an issue.”
Taking expired, ineffective heart medication or adrenaline for anaphylactic shock, for instance, can be life-threatening. In Kathleen’s case, if she had disposed of the old medication and seen a doctor sooner her infection would not have progressed and she would not have required hospital treatment.
Upon returning home, Sienna cleaned out Kathleen’s medicine cabinet and then her own, where she found old antibiotics and painkillers as well as old packets of the contraceptive pill that she had kept in case she needed them in the future.
As well as being ineffective, keeping old medicines means they are easier to mix up, says Mr Brown.
“When you have a medicine cabinet or container full of a dozen different medicines, a number of them do look quite similar and particularly when people are sick or it’s late at night people are more likely to make mistakes or mix up two medicines,” he says. Common scenarios include taking a family member’s medication, mistaking nose drops or antiseptic for eye drops or taking painkillers that are too strong.
“Sometimes we have to refer people to hospital for that mix up,” Mr Brown says.
The Griffith University research found that 80 per cent of Australians do not know how to dispose of expired or unwanted medicines safely, and put them in the bin instead of returning them to their local pharmacy.
“It can be quite dangerous,” Mr Brown says. “We get both young children and pets getting into the garbage and, again, some of these medications can be highly toxic even in one tablet amount – the rubbish bin is not a good place. There’s also the environmental impact of having them in general landfill – that will potentially leach into soils and waterways and we do find medicines are detectable in a range of waste water analysis and the like.”
Contact the NSW Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26 and find out about Returning unwanted medicines here.