Medication safety  |  Poison safety and prevention  |  Cough and cold

Cleaning Out the Medicine Cabinet

The Bottom Line

Cough and cold medicines are no longer recommended for children under the age of four. Ipecac syrup is no longer recommended for anyone. Mercury thermometers are now known to be a possible health risk if they break.

The Full Story

Cold and flu season is inevitable. To get ready, go through your medicine cabinet and get rid of outdated medicines, mercury thermometers, and anything else that is outdated or obsolete.

Cough and cold medicines: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that these products not be used in children under the age of four. These products are not useful in treating kids' colds. In some cases, these medicines actually can be harmful, especially if care-givers make mistakes with doses or timing.

If you have cough and cold medicines for children in your home, now is a good time to throw them away.

  • Mix them with used coffee grounds or kitty litter
  • Place the mixture in a covered coffee can or zippered plastic bag
  • Put this in the trash. (Do not flush the medicines away unless the label says it's OK.)

If your child gets a cold or the flu, consult your health care provider. You will probably be told to treat fever with over-the-counter acetaminophen or ibuprofen (NOT aspirin). If you do, use the correct measuring device, read the label carefully, and give the right dose. Saline nose drops and a cool-mist vaporizer might also be recommended. In any case, and whenever you give your child medicine, be sure to avoid double-dosing; make sure that everyone who gives medicine to your child knows the schedule.

Mercury thermometers: They still tell your temperature, but the mercury is now recognized as a hazard to the environment. If you still have a mercury thermometer, call your county's hazardous waste site, hazardous materials team, land fill, or health department to find out where to dispose of your intact mercury thermometer.

If a mercury thermometer breaks, take some steps to protect yourself and your family.

  • Have everyone leave the room. Open the windows. Close the door to that room.
  • Call Poison Control right away at 1-800-222-1222 to find out how to clean up safely.
  • Whatever you do, DO NOT walk through the material or vacuum it up.

Replace your mercury thermometer with a digital thermometer, found at any drug store and in the children's section of supermarkets.

  • Ipecac syrup: If you still have any ipecac syrup around, discard it according to the directions above. Ipecac is no longer recommended for treating poisonings. Poison Control will not tell you to use it and you should never give it on your own.

If someone is poisoned, use the webPOISONCONTROL® online tool for guidance or call Poison Control right away at 1-800-222-1222 to find out what you need to do. 

Rose Ann Gould Soloway, RN, BSN, MSEd, DABAT emerita
Clinical Toxicologist


For More Information

Cough and cold medicine for children (The Poison Post®)

Cleaning up mercury releases and spills (EPA)

Ipecac syrup and why it is no longer used

Poisoned?

Call 1-800-222-1222 or

HELP ME online

Prevention Tips

Discard outdated and obsolete medicines and thermometers.

This Really Happened

Case 1: The mom of a 5-year-old girl called Poison Control, concerned that she had mistakenly given her daughter a cough and cold medication that had expired two years before. For this medicine, Poison Control reassured her that the medication might be less effective but it would not harm the child. Poison Control also provided medication disposal information. In a follow-up call from Poison Control later that day, her mom reported that the child was fine.

Case 2: A glass mercury thermometer broke on the carpet in a home's living room. Several hours later one of the home's residents called Poison Control upset about the incident since they had researched mercury thermometers on the Internet and realized that they hadn't followed proper clean-up guidelines. The caller's spouse had vacuumed the mercury spill. When they realized that vacuuming is not recommended, they opened all the windows and threw the entire vacuum cleaner away. Poison Control provided addition information about mercury thermometer clean-up and disposal. In this situation, no illness was expected.