Highs in the triple digits are common in Arizona during the summer months. As the mercury rises, we’re often reminded about the things we need to do to stay healthy in hot weather, like avoiding dehydration, heat exhaustion, and sunburn. Those tips are important — and can even be potentially life-saving — but what’s often missing from summertime health advice is information about using medications and contraceptives safely and effectively when a hot environment can quickly diminish their integrity. That’s a serious omission when Americans buy about 5 billion over-the-counter drug products annually and nearly half of all Americans use one or more prescription drugs.
Heat can alter the molecular structure of oral contraceptives or shorten a condom’s shelf life.
Extreme heat and cold can cause medications to change physically, and those changes can make medications less potent — and for some medications, unsafe to use. Oral contraceptives and other medications that contain hormones are especially susceptible, since the proteins they contain can change their properties during heat exposure.
The labels on medications, whether over-the-counter or prescription, typically recommend storing them in a cool, dry place and keeping them away from excessive heat and humidity, or might give a specific temperature range, commonly 68 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit (20 to 25 degrees Celsius). That’s an ideal range, but most medications are still usable after storage in temperatures as low as 32 to 58 degrees Fahrenheit (zero to 14 degrees Celsius) and as high as 80 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit (27 to 30 degrees Celsius). Advice varies, so it’s always best to consult a physician or pharmacist when less-than-ideal storage has already happened or is anticipated. Help is also available at Planned Parenthood health centers, where staff can answer questions about general health care and about using contraceptives safely and effectively.
Moisture can also damage medications, so it’s generally best to keep them tightly sealed in their original containers and avoid storing them in a bathroom or kitchen cabinet, where moisture is more common.
Traveling Wisely with Medications and Contraceptives
In the case of anticipated storage problems, such as during travel, a physician or pharmacist can often recommend a cool pack to keep medications at the correct temperature. Summer is a travel season for many, and travel with medications and contraceptives requires its own precautions. Car travel can be especially damaging to medications. Within a short amount of time without air conditioning, a car’s interior can soar to around 50 percent above the outside temperature. Medications are safest during car travel if they are kept in the air-conditioned passenger compartment (not in the trunk) and carried with you whenever you leave your car. Air travel also requires precaution, since luggage compartments are not temperature-controlled. Keeping medications in carry-on baggage is best.
For condoms, much of the same advice applies. Extreme heat and cold can shorten the shelf life of a condom, so condoms should be stored and transported much like medications. Shopping for the right condom is a good idea when you anticipate traveling, or carrying condoms while you’re on the go. In the case of latex condoms, researchers at the Washington State Board of Pharmacy in Seattle have found that their stability in hot and humid environments is improved by pre-lubrication with a silicone lubricant and packaging that provides an oxygen barrier, such as foil-laminated plastic. Carrying condoms in your pockets should be avoided, but if necessary, keeping them in a hard case like a business card holder or a compact can protect them from friction and punctures before use.
Dealing with Damaged Medications
If it’s too late for storage precautions with medications, damaged medications should always be disposed of instead of used. Not all damage is perceptible, but signs of damage can include changes in color, smell, hardness, and smoothness.
How medications are disposed of is important. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality recommends mixing your damaged medications “with an undesirable substance like coffee grounds or kitty litter, and put[ting] them in impermeable, nondescript containers such as empty cans or sealable bags” before throwing them away, so that they won’t be consumed by children or pets. More information about how and why medications should be disposed of properly is available in their brochure “Prescription Drug Disposal … a Pain in the Drain.”
Most condoms are made primarily with biodegradable materials, and used, expired, or damaged condoms can be put in the trash like other waste. Flushing condoms down the toilet is never a good idea, since they can clog pipes and won’t biodegrade underwater.