How to Safely Dispose of Unused Medicines

If you take prescription or over-the-counter medicines, chances are you have some that are expired or you no longer need. It is important to discard old or unwanted drugs because they may no longer be effective or safe to use. If taken by a person other than whom the prescription was prescribed, they can also cause serious harm.

According to the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), the best way to dispose of your expired, unwanted, or unused medicines is through a drug take-back program. In some cases, you may also be able to dispose of them safely at home.

When in doubt, you can ask your pharmacist for advice or check any instructions on the medicine label. Some pharmacies offer on-site medicine drop-off boxes, mail-back programs and other ways to help you safely dispose your unused medicines. A local hospital or recycling center may also offer drug take-back programs.

In addition, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) sponsors National Prescription Drug Take Back Day in communities nationwide. To find a local drug take-back location, you can search online for a DEA-authorized collector in your community or check with local law enforcement officials.

When a take-back option is not easily available, there are two ways to dispose of medicines at home, depending on the drug: 1) flush the medicines down the sink or toilet and 2) discard the medicines in the trash.

First, because some drugs could be especially harmful to others (such as prescription pain medicines), they have specific directions to immediately flush down the sink or toilet when they are no longer needed. To know if this is safe, you should check the label, patient information leaflet or the FDA’s list of medicines recommended for disposal by flushing if a take-back option is not available. If your medicine is not found on the FDA’s list, please do not flush it!

Second, if a drug take-back program is not available, almost all medicines (except those on the FDA flush list) can be thrown into your household trash. These include prescription and over-the-counter drugs in pills, liquids, drops, patches and creams. The FDA requests that you follow these steps:

  1. Remove the drugs from their original containers and mix them with something undesirable, such as used coffee grounds, dirt or cat litter. This makes the medicine less appealing to children and pets, and unrecognizable to someone who might intentionally go through the trash looking for drugs.
  2. To prevent the drug from leaking or spilling out, put the mixture in something you can close such as a re-sealable zipper storage bag, empty can or other container.
  3. Throw the container in the garbage.
  4. Scratch out all personal information on the empty medicine packaging to protect your identity and privacy, and then throw the packaging away.

Many people are concerned about the negative impacts flushing medications down the sink or toilet may have on drinking water supplies. However, health experts say there has been no sign of serious environmental effects by flushing recommended drugs.

If you have any additional questions about how to safely discard your medicine, be sure to ask your pharmacist or healthcare provider. For more information from the FDA, please click here.

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