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The mystery of the missing labels - (8/18/2020)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

“What’s in this jar?” the pharmacist asked his husband. Jake gave the Mason jar a swirl. “It’s either that oil-gas mixture for the weed whacker or Uncle Charlie’s steak marinade that he was bragging about. Both men peered into the greasy glass jar and said simultaneously, "Who forgot to label it?"

“Where did this come from?” Jake asked the pharmacist as they stood at the kitchen sink. The plastic bottle was green with a small nozzle, and it was stashed way in the back of the cupboard under the sink. It may have held a detergent at some point. But who knew? There was no label on it. Was it actually dish soap, or was it some nutritional concoction for Jake's African violets? “Who forgot to label it?"

Yesterday morning, both the pharmacist and Jake were hurriedly brushing their teeth as both were getting late for work. Jake was rifling through a few drawers looking for his shaving cream. “What the heck are all these pill containers? Most of them have tablets and capsules in them." They appeared to be from his husband's pharmacy. Yet, none of them had labels on them. "Oh, the green ones are my allergy pills that I took to our trip to Canada,” said the pharmacist. “I did not want to take the entire bottle.” “Yes, we were lucky,” replied Jake. Many countries require that any prescription medications be in their original container, says the US Department of State. Note that some over-the-counter drugs that are legal in the US may be unlawful in another area. For example, The United Arab Emirates bans analgesics that contain codeine. Always double-check before you travel. Even a single tablet can arouse suspicion if not correctly labeled. "Remember how you said just ‘One little blue pill’ would be enough for our weekend in Bermuda?” Both guffawed like hungry bears. 

Seriously, unmarked containers of any size and shape could be dangerous. Children who cannot read can see the word POISON on a bottle, and if the contents are attractive enough, down the hatch! But this is not about accidental poisonings of children of which poison centers are all too aware. Adults make mistakes too. Thousands of emergency calls are placed nationwide involving incidents, many of which occur after a person ingests a chemical that was transferred from its original container into a beverage container. In California, poison centers identified more than 1,400 cases of accidental poisoning caused by the storage of non-food substances in soda bottles, unmarked bottles, cups, or glasses from 1998 to 2009. For example, there was a 49-year-old man who, while working in his barn one morning, accidentally poured some herbicide from a larger jug into his coffee cup and inadvertently took a gulp. He survived the ordeal.  

If you can read this column, then you can probably also write a label on a bottle. And write the name of the drug, not just what the medication is for. For example, allergy pills come in different shapes and colors. Thus, you are wiser to write Zyrtec® or Claritin® on the label rather than “allergy pills.” Include the date while you are at it – medications from 1997 probably are not going to stifle your sniffles very effectively. How about those mysterious caverns under your sink and those unreachable shelves in the garage? Know that the higher and farther they are from your hands, the less likely they will ever be used. Dispose of them properly because you never want to ask, "Who forgot to label it?" As for the question of the century: Why do adults need vitamins shaped like colorful gummy bears? Aren’t people with kids around the house just asking for trouble? "They're mine," said Jake.

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a registered pharmacist, medical writer, and principal at Rx-Press. 


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