Medicine Cabinet Rethink

RETHINK Your Medicine Cabinet

Spring is a time when many people finally find the energy to clean house.  Your medicine cabinet also needs attention.  Hawthorne Pharmacy offers free medicine cabinet clean ups with our home visit MedsCheck, as well as on our Brown Bag medicine cabinet clean up days.  Here are medicine cabinet pointers, including some things you might want to do differently (i.e. RETHINKs):


“… do I need a medicine cabinet, anyway?  Hawthorne Pharmacy is just around the corner, they have everything I need, and they are open late.”  Good point!  The obvious answer is that, even if we were open 24 hours a day, most people still want the convenience of being able to quickly self-medicate minor health problems without having to leave the house.  The key characteristics of good medicine cabinet items include:

  • they treat ailments that have a reasonable likelihood of occurring at least once during the year,
  • most of those ailments do not require immediate attention by a health professional
  • they do not require a prescription for purchase
  • the items are conveniently packaged for storage
  • because they may only be used very little, or not at all, they should be relatively inexpensive to buy or replace when expired


Most people keep their medications in the bathroom or kitchen.  RETHINK: These are the worst places to keep your medications.  “Why?”, you ask,  “That’s where I get my glass of water to wash down my pills!”  The main reasons are two-fold: 1) The high temperatures and humidity of the bathroom make medications go bad faster, and 2) You won’t spill your pills down the sink or (as patients often tell me) in the toilet!  Why anybody would be taking their pills over the toilet is anyone’s guess.  The best place?  In a locked box (check out this one from Ikea) or high shelf in your bedroom closet (cool and dry), where the kids can’t get at it.  I keep a couple of smaller first aid kits in the kitchen and garage as well, which is fine.


Exactly which items to keep in your medicine cabinet will differ slightly from household to household.  If you have chronic medical conditions, have small children, or are traveling, you will have more specific needs.  For help deciding on these special circumstances, ask your Hawthorne Pharmacist.

1. First Aid Kit

While technically not a medication, a first aid kit naturally deserves to be in, or near, your medicine cabinet.  Here’s what it should contain:

  • Antibiotic ointment (RETHINK: get plain Polysporin™ – the type for ‘Pain Relief’ contains anesthetics that could sensitize the skin).  Keep the tube away from infected cuts (i.e. apply it directly to a bandage then apply the bandage to the wound), otherwise you may have to replace the tube.
  • Hydrogen peroxide for cleaning wounds
  • Alcohol-free (Quaternary Ammonium Compound) wipes.  RETHINK: These are safer than bottles of rubbing alcohol, and have the gauze built-in.  They can be used to clean thermometers as well as the skin around a wound.
  • A digital thermometer.  There are many kinds, so ask a Hawthorne Pharmacist which is right for your household.
  • Petroleum jelly (i.e. Vaseline™).  An all-purpose moisturizer and lubricant.
  • Assorted sterile gauze bandages, including non-woven for oozing wounds
  • Assorted bandaids, latex-free
  • Medical tape
  • Eyewash solution
  • Tweezers and magnifying glass
  • Liquid bandage
  • Cotton swabs
  • medical scissors

2. Pain and Fever

  • Acetaminophen (i.e. Tylenol™) is easier on the stomach, but ibuprofen (Advil™ , Motrin™ ) and naproxen (Aleve™) also reduce swelling and work hours longer.  RETHINK: Aspirin is not typically recommended for medicine cabinets any more, and must not be given to children under 16.

3. Cough & Cold

  • NOTE:  Most cough and cold products are not to be given to kids under 6 years of age!
  • RETHINK: Avoid so-called ‘All-in-One’ cough and cold formulas because it is more difficult to control safe dosages.  Keep separate bottles of the items in this list.  Check with your Hawthorne Pharmacist if an all-in-one makes sense, and even then only get a small quantity for immediate use – not for the medicine cabinet.
  • Antihistamine for allergic reactions/insect bites/rashes/itching/runny nose/sneezing.  Diphenhydramine (Benadryl™) is recommended since it works fast and has been around a long time.  Diphenhydramine can cause drowsiness, so may not be the best choice for people who have seasonal allergies.
  • DM syrup (Benylin DM™) to stop a dry cough.  You can still cough up and spit out (i.e. ‘expectorate’) mucus/phlegm intentionally if you want.
  • Decongestants (like pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine) are made to reduce ‘stuffiness’ of the sinuses and chest.  These should be used with caution because they can raise the heart rate and blood pressure.  Stand-alone decongestants are kept behind the pharmacist’s counter
  • Expectorants for “mucus relief” are safe, but not particularly effective.  RETHINK: Take more fluids, especially warm (tea, low-sodium broth) instead.
  • Red/itchy eyes: RETHINK: Do not use ‘Visine’-type eye drops for red eyes, unless you have a photo shoot at a modelling agency or some other temporary and important event.  Use for more than 2 or 3 days can lead to rebound.
  • Stuffed up nose: RETHINK: For the same reason as for the eyes, nasal decongestants (such as Otrivin or Dristan) should not be used for more than a few days.  If you are dependent on daily nasal spray use, we can help you fix it.  Ask us.

4. Digestive Health

  • Oral Rehydration Salts (ORS), such as Gastrolyte™ or Pedialyte™ are needed when we lost water and essential minerals from fever, diarrhea, and vomiting.  RETHINK: Gatorade or Powerade may do in a pinch, but are not as good, and may be too acidic for an already sensitive stomach
  • Loperamide (Imodium™) for quick control of diarrhea.  RETHINK: Diarrhea can have serious causes, some of which, such as Salmonella or E. Coli, can be deadly.  Always see a doctor as soon as possible if you have severe diarrhea, or that which lasts more than 24 hours.
  • Calcium carbonate (TUMS™, Rolaids™) tablets provide quick relief from stomach ache or heartburn.  They might be chalky, but they are very portable, and fit in a purse or pocket more easily than liquid antacids.
  • Liquid antacids (Maalox™, Mylanta™) are less convenient, but work faster and longer than calcium carbonate tablets.  RETHINK: If you find you have to take antacids frequently, you may have a more serious problem.  Ask your Hawthorne Pharmacist.
  • Laxatives:  Gentle stool “softeners” (Colace™) and stimulant laxatives, or “pushers” (Senokot™, Dulcolax™) are fine for occasional constipation.  However, I don’t recommend self-medicating for chronic constipation.  Follow these prevention tips, and call us if you ever get stuck.

5. Sun safety

  • UVA protection is essential.  UVB protection is also recommended.  Try to get both.  Wear a hat and sunglasses, and avoid the sun between 11am and 3pm.
  • Remember, there is no such thing as a safe tan.  Know your risks.  If you are light-skinned and fair-haired (or worse, red-headed with freckles), you are at high risk.  However, any person of any skin colour can experience sun damage to their skin.  Be serious about sun safety.
  • Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 15 is the minimum you should be using.  Reapply frequently.
  • RETHINK: Save space in your beach bag: Baby sunblocks are effective for all members of the family.

6. Skin Problems

  • Calamine lotion is messy, but it soothes itching from rashes and bites, drying up oozing from poison ivy.
  • RETHINK: I don’t recommend antihistamine creams for itching because these can further sensitize the skin.
  • Cortisone cream for rashes and skin reactions (NOTE: do not use for infections, such as cold sores).  Do not use it on babies, or on the face without first speaking with your Hawthorne Pharmacist.
  • Clotrimazole (Canesten™) or miconazole (Micatin™) creams are useful for fungal/yeast infections that are fairly common in warm, moist areas of the body.  E.g. , vaginal infections, jock itch, or athlete’s foot.

You will notice that I didn’t mention dental care items, such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, or dental floss.  Clearly, these are items that belong in the bathroom, unlike medications!

Last, but not least…


  • RETHINK: Authorities used to recommend flushing expired medications down the toilet, or into the garbage.  The problem is that these methods contribute to the presence of drugs in our drinking water.  For now, our tap water is still safe to drink, but we need to limit contamination.  For this reason, Ontario now has a stewardship program for drug disposal.  Simply bring your expired medication to Hawthorne Pharmacy, and we will have them disposed of in an environmentally-friendly manner.

Tell us if you have unique needs for your medicine cabinet.  We are here to help!




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