Bad Medicine: Is Your Camper Carrying Expired Goods?

Kath Heiman — 15 March 2020
As part of maintaining a well set-up rig, we should periodically review what we carry.

Over the years, we’ve hauled kit around the country that has a natural use-by date. Whether that was when our daughter was younger and we travelled with cots and shield-frames to prevent her tottering too close to the fire pit; or pots and pans that — while still functional — simply aren’t used anymore. Or at least, aren’t used often enough to justify their existence.

As a rule of thumb, if we haven’t used an item in our last three trips away, we probably don’t need it. In combination, all we achieve by carrying redundant items is to waste space, generate unnecessary weight, and to squander fuel.

But what about our medications? The ‘three trip’ rule may not be relevant here — depending on what we’re using and why. Regardless: whether it’s sunscreen, over-the-counter products, or prescription medications, all need to be checked over now and again. While it may not be an issue of weight that motivates us to do so, it should be a question of health and safety.

For a start, many of us probably have containers of sunblock that live in our rigs, ready to be liberally slapped around our bodies when we get out among things. Trouble is that sunscreen doesn’t last forever. Exposing it to excessive heat or direct sun may breakdown the product’s components, and reduce its effectiveness, much quicker than the use-by date stamped on the bottle suggests. Given how simple sunblock is to come by, it should be an easy decision to routinely replace it. Better still, don’t leave it in the rig but store it indoors and put it on your packing list instead.

As for our medications, it looks like the question of use-by dates is a bit less clear. Harvard Medical School has got a bit to say on the topic. And they sound like an institution worth listening to (See Drug expiry dates — do they mean anything?, updated 13 December 2019). They tell us that drug manufacturers are required by law to stamp an expiration date on their products — being the date that the manufacturer can still guarantee its full potency and safety. But, following a study commissioned by the US military, researchers found that many medications (whether prescription or over-the-counter) can be good to use even over a decade after the listed expiration date.

But the question in my book is: had these old military drugs been stored in controlled conditions, or had they been knocking around in a camper for the last few years? If it’s the latter, then I don’t reckon I’ll be taking my chances.

When a company gives you an expiry date, they’ve likely tested the drug by exposing it to a range of conditions — including variations in temperature and humidity — to see when it degrades to a point where the effectiveness of the active ingredients is compromised (When old medicine goes bad, NPR, 6 February 2017). And these sound a lot like the types of conditions on the inside of a camper where heat and moisture are as changeable as the terrains we choose to travel.

Ideally, our medications should be stored at home in a dry, cool and dark place. And it’s a no-brainer to conclude that drugs specifically requiring refrigeration shouldn’t be in the camper. But if we do have tablets and other treatments stashed in our rig’s onboard medical kits, then the expiry date is probably a fair indicator that it’s reached the time when it should be returned to a pharmacist for safe disposal (for free).

The fact is that, when we reach for medications — particularly in remote Australia — we need them to work. Sometimes it’s because we don’t have other options for immediate medical support. Taking drugs that don’t work properly can mean more than an untreated headache. Reports tell us that if we’re dealing with antibiotics, for example, we can be risking an untreated infection and serious illness. And we also risk generating resistance to the drug so that even full-strength options become useless to us in the future.

So next time you make an inventory check of your rig, make a special effort to look at what’s in your first-aid kits and your toiletry cabinets. You may be surprised by what you find. And never flush your old drugs down the loo. Do so and you risk transferring your headache relief into a headache for the environment. 


bad medicine first aid travel first aid travel preparation