Strictly not for internal use

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The Independent Online

Today we tackle one of the most common household problems: What Should We Do With Left Over Medicines?

All round the home there are left-over pills, powders and creams which we no longer use but cannot bring ourselves to throw away, even though we are suspicious of them. What is it about human nature that makes it hang on to expired medicines?

We asked a philosopher to explain it to us.

"Hello!" says a philosopher. "Thank you for ringing me, and not Alain de Botton or AC Grayling! Why those two get all the work, I shall never know! Though I expect you tried de Botton and Grayling before you came to me, didn't you? I thought so. Oh well, you have to be philosophical about these things. Actually, in my case, you have to be philosophical all the time! I'm sorry, what was the question?"

Old medicines ...

"Of course. The thing is, we invest medicine with powers of healing and goodness, and cannot quite believe it does not have magic qualities even when past its sell-by date. Archaeologists will tell you they often dig up ointments, pills or other panaceas which have lain beside their late owner for thousands of years, as if they were unable to throw away their out-of-date medicines even after death!"

Thank you. What a waste of time that was. What we wanted him to say was that out-of-date medicines fall into quite definable categories, as follows:

1. Stuff bought on holiday, with instructions in French, German or Italian but not English, often using "entero-" as prefix. When we fall ill on holiday, we make the amazing discovery that foreigners have medicines just like ours, ie equally ineffective. We buy them, we take them, and the body recovers despite them. We bring the successful nostrum home and put it in the medicine cupboard, or, even better, leave it in the travel bag and take it on holiday again every year.

2. Stuff which cures conditions which nobody contracts any more. My mother, if I can be personal for a moment, used to buy thin tubes of Golden Eye Ointment. This used to cure a condition called Golden Eye. No, it didn't. It used to cure things call styes, which I used to get. Nobody gets styes any more, do they? But I still have my Golden Eye Ointment. Thanks, mum.

3. Stuff you can't identify. Pills in jars with illegible handwriting. Tubes rolled up so tight you can't unroll them or read the label. You are never going to use any of this stuff! And yet you can't bring yourself to throw it away, can you? What is it in the human psyche that prevents us from disposing of ancient, possibly lethal, medicine? We rang up a - oh, no, we've done that bit already. Let's go straight on to:

4. Stuff prescribed by the doctor for a specific ailment, which will probably never come back. Once upon a time the doctor said: "That's very interesting, you've got Cuthbertson's Rash on your earlobes. It's not contagious but it is annoying, so I'm going to prescribe a zinc alloy rub to clear it up," and there it sits, 20 years later, a little tub marked: "Zinc Alloy Rub, to be taken as directed, not internally or you will die, you silly fool", and although the doctor who prescribed it died long ago and the chemist's where you bought it is now an antique shop, you know that one day Cuthbertson's Rash could return and you will be ready for it!

What you don't know is whether medicines actually do go off, lose their potency and become totally useless with age. So we asked an expert. He said:

"Yes, they do lose their power, but you must never throw them away! What you must do is send them to us at Time Travel Medicaid. Then we send them back in time to Third World patients in the past who were desperately short of drugs and medicines. By going back in time, the medicines predate their expiry date again and we can use them safely once more!"

Amazing. Coming soon: "How To Identify Antiques Before They Get Old".