Behind the bathroom mirror, tucked away in a linen closet or stuffed under the sink lurks a pharmaceutical nightmare: the contents of your medicine cabinet.

Behind the bathroom mirror, tucked away in a linen closet or stuffed under the sink lurks a pharmaceutical nightmare: the contents of your medicine cabinet.

It’s an often-neglected hiding place where old prescription bottles vie for space with expired medications, first-aid odds and ends, and an assortment of toiletries you don’t even remember buying.

At best, it's clutter; at worst, a danger. All those bottles of expired, unused or no-longer-needed pills are a medicine mix-up just waiting to happen. Not only do they pose the risk of being taken by the wrong person, but they make it tempting to self-diagnose and self-medicate when you really should see a doctor.

It’s the start of a new year — a great time to tackle your makeshift home pharmacy. Here’s how to start.

ASSESS YOUR OTCS. As for OTC medications, use your best judgment on whether to toss them. If your medications have been stored under good conditions, they should retain all or much of their potency for at least one to two years after their expiration date, even after the container is opened, according to Johns Hopkins experts. Do, however, discard any medications that have changed in appearance, smell or texture; if in doubt, ask a pharmacist.

PURGE OLD PRESCRIPTIONS. Dispose of any out-of-date prescriptions or those you no longer take. You may feel like you’re throwing money away, but keeping unneeded pills can invite drug mix-ups or even abuse of potent medications like painkillers. And don’t just flush: Evidence indicates that medications disposed of this way may taint water supplies. U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommendations suggest discarding drugs by mixing the medication with something unappealing, such as cat litter or coffee grounds, sealing in a plastic bag and tossing in the household trash. A very few types of medication call for flushing down the toilet for disposal; if that's the case, it should be specified on the label. If you’ve lost the insert that came with your medication, visit http://dailymed.nlm.nih.gov/dailymed/about.cfm to find out about safe disposal. Alternatively, you can contact your local trash and
recycling service, or visit http://www.takebacknetwork.com to find out if your community offers an increasingly common drug take-back program.

RECONSIDER LOCATION. The bathroom is not the ideal place to stash prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Exposure to moisture, heat and steam can cause medications to deteriorate. To maintain potency, relocate your medications to a dresser drawer, linen closet or cabinet in a cool, dry room. As always, make sure wherever you store drugs is inaccessible to children. Reserve the bathroom cabinet for toiletries such as soap and shampoo, oral care products, cosmetics and other necessities that won’t be damaged by the humid air.

PITCH PERSONAL CARE PRODUCTS. Clear out items like deodorant, toothpaste and soap that are showing signs of age, such as hardening or cracking, or if they otherwise look or smell different than they did when they were fresh. Beyond their shelf life, these products may dry out and lose efficacy. If they are still sealed or don’t appear compromised, keep them. Many products maintain potency long after their printed expiration date.

STOCK UP FOR THE SEASON. Make use of all that newfound room in your cabinet by purchasing some essentials. Prepare for spring by picking up some allergy medication, sunscreen and first-aid supplies.
Check expiration dates before you buy, and get as much as you need but not more than you’ll use. You might even want to upgrade; odds are, new and improved items have entered the market since your last medicine-cabinet overhaul.

CHECK YOUR FIRST-AID KIT. You might be surprised to learn that many items in your first-aid kit have expiration dates, including standard adhesive bandages (they can lose their stickiness over time). The American Red Cross advises that you check the contents of your kit every three months to keep everything primed and ready for any kind of emergency.

AVOID POTENTIAL PROBLEMS. Get rid of expired contact solution, and replace your contact lens case (the FDA advises doing so every three months to lower the risk of infection). Toss any expired makeup, which can grow harmful bacteria, and sunscreen, which may lose its effectiveness and cost the unwary a serious burn.