March 5, 2019

Can you re-use older medications and other common questions

Prescription pills and a syringe on a table.

Patients often wonder if they can re-use older medications or whether the same drug can be shared between siblings. Here, UW Health family physician Mark Anderson addresses several questions often asked by patients about proper use and disposal of medications.

Q: I took a prescription about a year ago for back pain. The pain has resurfaced. Is it OK to re-use the medication if I still have some left? How old is too old for medication?

A: It depends. Most medications prescribed for muscular pain or arthritis pain are written to be taken "as needed" for pain. These medications are OK to stop and restart based on symptoms. Check the expiration date on the bottle to see if you can still re-use this medication or if it has expired and is ready for disposal. If the medication worked in the past but is now expired, contact your doctor and request a refill. You may or may not need to be seen before ordering the new prescription.

Q: I have two children. One was recently prescribed oral antibiotics. The other child now has the same symptoms. Can I give the antibiotics to the one who now has symptoms, since they both appear to have the same thing?

A: No. Even if Child 2’s doctor prescribes the same antibiotic that Child 1 recently took, Child 2 should have his/her own prescription because:

  1. The medical record needs to show that Child 2 took this medication.

  2. We need to document and address any side effects that Child 2 might have.

Q: What about when one child has a rash that looks the same as the rash their sibling had last summer? Can I use the same ointment now on the second child?

A: Again, please check with your child's physician (for the same reasons), but it probably is safe to use the same topical medication.

Q: I didn’t feel well after taking my prescription (perhaps I got an upset stomach or had other digestive issues), so I stopped taking it entirely or took just half the recommended dose. Why is that a problem?

A: If you stop a medication partially through the prescription or don't take it as prescribed, it may not work as intended. Antibiotics can lose their effectiveness if not taken exactly as directed and could even result in drug-resistant bacteria. Medications to treat conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes also might not properly treat the problem if not taken as directed.

Q: I’m on a fixed income and am trying to make my medication last longer, so I cut my pills in half. Is this OK?

A: Taking only half of the prescribed dose might not work as intended. Please talk to your physician and/or your pharmacist; they might be able to help you find a less costly medication. Generic medications, rather than brand name drugs, could save you money. It also helps to ask what drugs are on your insurance company’s “preferred” list.

Q: I had side effects from a medication and stopped taking it. How should I dispose of it?

A: We greatly appreciate the efforts of patients to properly dispose of old or unusable medications. Because old medications can get in the wrong hands or cause water pollution problems, please do not throw old prescriptions into the trash or flush them down the toilet. Please find a MedDrop location near you to properly and safely dispose of the prescription by visiting

Q: My doctor offered me the generic version of a prescription. Should I switch to a generic? Is the brand name version somehow better?

A: It should be fine to take the generic version. The generic medication is typically the same as the brand name, just less costly. Occasionally, patients notice that one works better than the other or that one has more or fewer side effects than the other.

Q: My prescription says to take the medication before bed. Does it really matter when I take it?

A: Typically, yes. There probably is a good reason to take the medication when directed. Perhaps it works better at a specific time of day, or it might make you drowsy, so in that case it is best to take at bedtime. If you have a question about when to take the medication or prefer to switch taking it to another time of day, please ask your doctor or pharmacist.

Q: I keep all my medications in my bathroom cabinet. Is that the right place to store medications?

A: Medications are best kept in a place that is cool, dark and dry. To avoid the risk of having medications stolen or taken by children, we recommend keeping medications in a locked storage box, locked drawer or cabinet.