Have you ruined your medicine? Are your heart pills ineffective? Is your anti-seizure drug almost worthless? Have your birth control pills lost their punch?

Heat and humidity are the enemies and unless you are careful, your medicine could lose potency.

Margaret had a nasty cough that wouldn’t go away. Finally, in desperation, she went to her physician who gave her a prescription for a powerful new antibiotic. Margaret was flabbergasted by the price. Because Margaret has trouble swallowing pills he offered her a specially compounded liquid formula which was outrageously expensive.

She figured it was worthwhile if the medicine could clear up the infection in her lungs. The pharmacist stuck a label on the bottle reminding her to store the medicine in the refrigerator. But before Margaret could get home and put it away she ran a few other errands.

While she went to have her hair done she left the medicine in the car. The temperature soared to well over 100 degrees and the antibiotic began to deteriorate.

Margaret’s cough did not get better, even with the antibiotic treatment. There’s no way to tell if the trouble she had getting rid of her bronchitis was due to the heat damage done to her medication. Her cough might have been caused by a viral infection that wouldn’t have responded to any antibiotic. However, there’s no doubt that allowing her medicine to sit in a hot car undermined its effectiveness.

Anyone who leaves medication on the seat or in the glove compartment at this time of year could be wasting money and inviting trouble. Not only might the chemical ingredients begin to decompose, they might be converted to toxic byproducts.

Even if you don’t allow your medicine to overheat in an automobile, that doesn’t mean you are home free. Ultraviolet rays from the sun can also harm some medicine.

Free samples provided by a physician may also be suspect during the summer. Sales representatives from pharmaceutical companies usually supply doctors with these freebies.

We’re all for giving people a sample to determine if the medication will work or cause intolerable side effects. But we do worry about samples that have ridden around in the trunk of a salesperson’s car from one doctor’s office to another.

Some companies require that the reps use cooler chests to store samples, but there are no uniform standards and the Food and Drug Administration does not supervise shipping or storage.

Mail order pharmacy services are also vulnerable to climatic conditions. No one likes to talk about this dirty little secret, especially the major insurance companies that now require many clients to purchase their drugs via mail order. But consider this: neither the United States Postal Service nor parcel delivery services have refrigerated trucks. Consequently, many medications shipped during the hot months may be exposed to dangerously high levels of heat and humidity.

Most prescription medicines call for storage at room temperature (68 to 77 degrees F). Temporary fluctuations ranging from 59 to 86 degrees are considered acceptable.

Most delivery vehicles well exceed that on a hot day. Just ask your UPS driver how hot it gets in the back of the big brown truck. We are willing to bet that many USPS delivery vehicles also reach 100 degrees or higher during the summer. By the way, this problem also applies to deliveries to wholesalers, pharmacies and health food stores.

But wait, the problem doesn’t end with the delivery truck. If the mailman puts your medicine in a mailbox it is likely to sit there for hours. In that hot metal box the temperature could soar to over 120 degrees or more.

Not all drugs are as sensitive to deterioration during shipping. But you will have no way of knowing whether the pills you remove from your hot mailbox this summer retain the same potency they had when they left the factory. Storing your pills on a kitchen table or window sill where sunlight can reach them may also cause damage.

And if you think you will be safe putting the bottle in the medicine chest, think again. This is about the worst place in the house because the heat and humidity from your shower can ruin medicine. Pill bottles are not air tight so moisture can work its way in and speed deterioration.

Ask your pharmacist about proper drug storage, especially for heart pills, antibiotics, epilepsy medications and all liquid medicines. If you are required to buy via mail order, contact the company and ask about the effect of shipping on shelf life.

In our opinion, the FDA, the pharmaceutical industry and mail order pharmacies have not addressed this issue adequately. If medications are supposed to be stored at temperatures between 68 and 77 degrees, why allow drugs to be shipped during the summer when everyone knows these guidelines will be violated for hours or even days at a time?

 

Join Over 54,000 Subscribers at The People's Pharmacy

Each week we send two free email newsletters with breaking health news, prescription drug information, home remedies and a preview of our award-winning radio show. Join our mailing list and get the information you need to make confident choices about your health.

  1. ARD
    Reply

    This issue has concerned me for quite some time. I’m glad to see that it is finally starting to be addressed. As usual, thanks Graedons, for being on the forefront of health issues that are often overlooked!
    I order many supplements from a company which says that it keeps its stock in a climate controlled warehouse. (Of course, the shipping conditions from the manufacturers to their warehouse is unknown.) They have an overnight shipping option which adds an extra $12.00 to the price. I always take this option as I live in south Louisiana where it is very hot and humid. This company’s prices are very reasonable, and I order a large amount at a time, so it is affordable. I just consider it well worth it to increase the chances that a supplement will be effective.

  2. JBG
    Reply

    Temperature can be an issue in the wintertime too, especially in northern parts of the country. Gels, creams, etc can separate, liquids freeze, with unknown effects.
    But yes, heat is worse and way harder to avoid.

  3. HN
    Reply

    I order many of my vitamins and supplements from online sellers to save a lot of cost over the local health food stores. When the UPS driver handed me my delivery last week at 3PM here in Central Florida, I brought it inside, cut the packing tape, lifted the flaps and was hit with a rush of very hot air. I quickly closed it back up and put a temperature probe into the box. It registered 91.5 degrees! I looked at the bottles of supplements and one recommended storing at no higher than 75 degrees. I contacted the company I ordered from to ask if these were now damaged. Their product specialist assured me that the temperature limit is because the gelatin capsules will start to melt and stick to each other. He said that, even if they did that, the ingredients would still be okay at 91 degrees.
    I’m no scientist, so I can’t say if that’s accurate or not. The company was willing to exchange them, so I asked if they ship any other method–the only option was USPS and the hot mailbox, as mentioned in your article. I then contacted UPS to ask if they can do anything about the heat in their trucks and they responded that the shipper knowingly takes on the risk of exposing their products to high temperatures during shipment. I kept the supplements and hope they’re okay.

What Do You Think?

Share your thoughts with others, but be mindful of protecting your own and others' privacy. Not all comments will be posted. Advice from web visitors is not a substitute for medical attention. Do not stop any medicine without checking with the prescriber. In posting a comment, you agree to our commenting policy and website terms and conditions.