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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Highlight on Drugs Highlight on Drugs

Stocking Your Medicine Cabinet (Part 3)

September 23, 2013

By Harold J. DeMonaco M.S.

Harvard Medical School

Third and final in a series

Choosing among the dozens of brands and types of medicine on drug-store shelves can be confusing and frustrating. In this series I am giving you my recommendations for what belongs in a properly stocked medicine cabinet.

In the first article of this series, I discussed which drugs to have on hand for coughs and colds; for pain, inflammation and fever; and for diarrhea. Last month I discussed medicines for heartburn, constipation and first aid. This article is the last in the series. The recommendations below are a bit of a mixed bag.

These recommendations are general and may not be the best for some people with certain medical conditions or taking certain drugs. So, always ask your doctor, and make sure you read the label to see if the products are right for you.

It bears repeating that if you have small children in the house or are visited by children, you should have the telephone number of the local poison-control center in plain sight. Poisonings still happen, and young children are especially at risk.

Thermometers and Miscellaneous Equipment

No one should be using a mercury thermometer any longer. The thermometer itself is made of glass, not a very good material to put into a child’s mouth or rectum. In addition, mercury is a toxic material. You can buy thermometers that do not contain mercury, but they are still made of glass. A better alternative is a digital thermometer, especially if you have children around. You can expect to pay from about $6 up to $40. The inexpensive versions work just fine. You will need covers as well.

If you have a mercury thermometer, don’t just throw it into the trash. Most states and many communities have special trash collections of household hazardous materials once or twice a year.

Keep scissors, tweezers, safety pins, cotton swabs and rubbing alcohol in stock. (Rubbing alcohol is poisonous, so make sure you have it high out of reach and the cover is tight.)

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Antifungal for Vaginitis

If you are a woman who has had one or more bouts of vaginitis, you should probably consider having a spare container of an antifungal product. It can save an annoying trip to the pharmacy in the middle of the night. There are many over-the-counter products, and you should consult with your family doctor, nurse practitioner or gynecologist about which one is right for you.

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Meat Tenderizer for Insect Stings

Bee and wasp stings hurt because of the venom that is injected from the stinger. The venom is a protein, so as strange as it seems, meat tenderizer that contain a product called papain, an enzyme that breaks down protein, is an essential medicine-cabinet item. Mix it with water and form a paste and then apply it right to the sting. If you can see the stinger (a black spot in the middle of the red wheal) pull it out first. You should wash the paste off in 20 to 30 minutes. A word of caution: If the person stung has had previous bad reactions to stings, or is having difficulty breathing or swallowing or feels faint, a trip to the nearest emergency room — not meat tenderizer — is the right approach.

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Auralgan for Earaches

If you have young children at home, you may want to ask your pediatrician about a product called Auralgan (antipyrine with benzocaine), especially if your child has had bouts of ear infections. Auralgan contains an anti-inflammatory and a local anesthetic and can be sleep saver if your child awakens in the middle of the night with an earache. Auralgan can provide enough pain relief to allow you and your child some sleep. Auralgan, however, is not a substitute for a discussion with your child’s pediatrician the next morning.

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What Not To Put in the Medicine Cabinet

No discussion of what to have in the medicine cabinet would be complete without a quick comment on what not to put in your medicine cabinet.

Drugs decompose faster when exposed to heat and moisture. The bathroom may well be one of the worst places to store medications, especially prescription drugs. If you are not certain of the best place to store prescription drugs ask your pharmacist for advice. Finally, you should discard any prescription drugs that you are no longer using or that have gone beyond their expiration dates.

And finally, if you have small children or grandchildren, you probably have a bottle of ipecac in your house. Ipecac was routinely recommended for childhood poisonings after consulting with a poison control center or physician. The American Academy of Pediatrics no longer recommends the use of ipecac. Ipecac was used to produce vomiting. The theory was that by getting whatever was ingested out of the stomach, you could reduce the amount of drug that would get into the system. While that is true, ipecac caused a lot more problems than it solved. Unfortunately, some parents used it without getting the advice of a physician or poison control center first. When used incorrectly, ipecac can cause more harm than good. If you have a bottle, empty the contents down the sink.

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Harold J. DeMonaco, M.S., is senior clinical associate in the Decision Support and Quality Management Unit at the Massachusetts General Hospital and is currently a Visiting Scholar at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He is author of over 20 publications in the pharmacy and medical literature and routinely reviews manuscript submissions for eight medical journals.

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