You're meticulous about monitoring the expiration dates on milk cartons. You carefully check sell-by dates before putting meat in your shopping cart. And you take a moment to scan cans, bottles, and jars for their "best before" dates.
But have you ever checked the expiration dates on the contents of your first-aid kit? Do you even have a first-aid kit?
Just face it: It's time for a medicine cabinet makeover.
If you're like the rest of us, you are probably missing items that you or your loved ones will need in case of an injury that falls short of requiring a visit to the emergency room. And, like the rest of us, your bathroom cabinets are likely filled with items that have outlived their "use by" dates, potentially making them less potent or perhaps even dangerous. While a recent study by the California Poison Control System suggested that many drugs past their expiration date are still effective, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not mince words on its Web site: "Once the expiration date has passed, there is no guarantee that an expired medicine will be safe and effective. If your medicine has expired, do not use it."
Now, there's no need to panic, of course.
But consider this your nudge to take stock of your family's medicine cabinet and see what might need replacing. Make a list, keep your eyes peeled for coupons and sales on the items your family is most likely to need. You could also take the easy way out and just buy a trauma kit (they are often better stocked than a routine first-aid kit), and then buy a few more items to round out your supplies.
Need any more incentive?
Think about how much better equipped you'll feel about treating your sick spouse or kiddo with all the necessary items well organized, easily within reach and safely within their expiration dates. Here are the items a well-stocked medicine cabinet should contain, plus a few items you'll be happy you have on hand. (If there are items we've overlooked, please leave a comment on the online version of this story, so we can add them to our list.)
Bandages and gauze in a variety of shapes and sizes. (If you have kids, Mickey Mouse or Hello Kitty bandages can't hurt.)
Anti-bacterial spray and/or ointment.
Hydrocortisone cream, to relieve itching.
Tweezers and scissors. It's worth springing for precision tools (something you already know if you've ever tried to remove a splinter from a squirming toddler).
An instant-read thermometer. Shop around, read reviews and consider what might work best for your family. A thermometer with an ear scan feature, for example, might be helpful when you want to take a temperature without waking up a sick child who has finally fallen asleep.
Cough drops and cough syrup
An over-the-counter allergy medication.
Cold reliever and sleep enhancer such as NyQuil, or a generic-brand equivalent.
Rubbing alcohol. Believe it or not, this can expire too, losing its effectiveness over time.
Cold pack. In a pinch, a bag of frozen peas will do. But it's helpful to have something a bit more durable. Keep this in the freezer, of course, so it's ready to go.
Heating pad. Probably not standard fare for an emergency kit, but it might be soothing for an aching back or flu-induced chills.
A first-aid guide or pamphlet. You can find these online or perhaps at your doctor's office. And, in a pinch, you can always look something up online. But it's nice to have a primer at your fingertips when you're trying to remember the best way to treat a burn or sprained ankle, or what R.I.C.E. stands for. (That would be rest, ice, compression, elevation — the course of treatment for minor soft-tissue injuries.)
A laminated list of phone numbers and addresses and perhaps even a map including directions to your doctor and the nearest emergency room. (Also consider adding the same information for your veterinarian and a 24-hour emergency vet — helpful in case someone is house-sitting for a pet and is not familiar with the area.)
Eyewash, for soothing an eye that has become irritated after an afternoon cleaning out the garage.
Gloves, eye protection and a mouth guard you can use in case you need to perform CPR.
Speaking of CPR: If you're not certified, get certified. Many community centers offer classes, or contact the Red Cross for a class list. It takes just a few hours, and you'll learn first-aid basics and CPR. You'll never regret knowing how to treat an injury or save a life in case of an emergency.