In the latest installment of our conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Sheena Nguyen, pharmacist with Texas Health Resources Medical Support, discusses how to safeguard medicines and medical equipment ahead of a freeze.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For a longer version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Alexis Allison: So Sheena, as we continue to experience colder weather, I’m thinking about potential freezes. I’m wondering how a freeze like the one that we had in 2021 could affect someone’s medicine or medical equipment that they keep at home?
Sheena Nguyen: Yeah, absolutely. Medications and medical equipment each have their own storage requirements. When they get exposed to these extreme temperatures outside of their desired range, it affects the integrity of the product — that’s the components in the medication and its ingredients, and it causes those things to be less effective, rendering the medication to be less effective. And sometimes that can be dangerous for people who rely on these medications to live.
Allison: I’m wondering what specific medicines or specific types of equipment are especially vulnerable to winter weather or to a power loss after a freeze?
Nguyen: Most of the concern with the prescription or over-the-counter medication is (over) the ones in liquid dosage forms, and particularly injectables. Liquids and injectable medications are very susceptible to extreme temperatures. And even short-term exposure can be harmful to the product. So for example, insulin in diabetic patients, it’s a common medication that can be quickly impacted. And some people require insulin to keep their blood sugars leveled.
And then, when it comes to medical equipment, anything electrical, for example, breathing machines that require an outlet, whether that’s ventilators or oxygen equipment, or battery-operated devices like hearing aids also require some sort of power to keep them maintained. So when the power goes out, or you run out of batteries, and you can’t go to the store because it’s storming and icing outside, those things are what you want to watch out for.
Allison: Well, maybe we can start with medications, and then go to some of those types of safety equipment. How would you recommend people prepare for a freeze when it comes to, say, insulin or other medications?
Nguyen: Definitely review your medication storage information, just to be aware and mindful of each product’s temperature recommendations. I know for non-liquid formulations, most medications are within 68-77 degrees — the optimal. But of course, colder temperatures can render that ineffective.
You want to try to avoid leaving your medications in your car or trunk. I know when we pick up prescriptions, we tend to just forget about it and it gets left behind in the car. Some people (also) put medications on their windowsills and it’s a lot colder by the window than the rest of the house, so avoid putting things like that directly on the windowsills. Or some people might accidentally leave their medications in their garage or shed that are not temperature-regulated. And if you leave those products out for an extended period of time, of course those medications will be compromised.
So for medical devices, make sure you find an alternative source of power. So that’s like a backup generator or having another source of power elsewhere, like a neighbor’s house, or your family member’s house or your friend’s house that still has power. Seek those alternative sources out and make sure you have a plan in place. So when the power goes off in your area, you can contact these people and rely on them.
And if you do have backup equipment, I would also recommend doing a biannual checkup to make sure those are working properly when there is an emergency. Just because sometimes you think you have something and it’s time to use it, and then you’re like, ‘Oh no, it’s out of battery!’ And for anything that’s battery-related, just make sure to have extra batteries on hand.
Allison: Going back to the medication, I’m wondering if we’re in a freeze and someone loses power, are there strategies that you would recommend to try to keep that medication at the appropriate temperature? Let’s use insulin as an example.
Nguyen: Well, it’s different because insulins require cold storage. So (at the pharmacy) we always use those Styrofoam packages that vaccine comes in, and then we ice-pack it. So make sure if you have insulin to have ice packs (in your freezers). So that way, you can use those to pack it in those Styrofoam boxes, or you can even do those insulated lunch boxes (with) ice packs. And then you can pack your insulin there as well.
Allison: Great, thank you. And then I wonder about people who may be experiencing homelessness and who carry medications or medical equipment. Are there resources in Tarrant County for them to access when a freeze happens?
Nguyen: So for those who lack resources to keep their equipment and medication safe at the proper temperature, please do plan ahead. Prior to bad weather, you want to seek out help from someone or somewhere that you trust who has those resources and notify them. So for example, for homeless patients, some homeless shelters, outreach programs, community centers and even churches may help store those medications for you. And sometimes they even have generators to keep medication and equipment operating. The best thing is to ask these questions before a freeze hits, so that you have a plan in place.
Want text alerts about cold-weather shelters?
To receive text alerts about Fort Worth cold-weather shelters, text FWCOLD to 817-241-3544.
To receive text alerts about Arlington cold-weather shelters, text ARLCOLD to 817-241-3544.
For more information about shelters in Tarrant County, visit the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition’s website.
Allison: Is there anything else that you think we should know?
Nguyen: Plan ahead. If you have a chronic disease or require medical equipment, plan a few options ahead of time. Do not wait for the extreme temperatures. It’s vital that you have backup powers for your equipment, and proper storage conditions for your medications.
And if you have any questions about the effectiveness of your medication, or notice that your medication looks damaged, I would contact the local pharmacy. They are the best resources to help guide you to what to do next. And if you’ve ever received a prescription from one of our pharmacy kiosks at the Texas Health Breeze urgent care clinics, don’t hesitate to give us a call.
Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.