Odds are you have some old medications cluttering up your medicine cabinet — expired flu meds from the last time you were sick, or perhaps some leftover prescription painkillers that you never used.
Beyond just taking up space, these medications can pose a danger to yourself and others, so it’s important to get rid of them. But it’s not necessarily as simple as just tossing them in the trash.
Below, learn about how to dispose of your medications the right way.
Still looking for health insurance? Call a licensed insurance agent at 1-800-273-8115 or explore uhone.com to learn more about your options.
Why old drugs can be dangerous
Let’s start with why it’s so important to dispose of your old medications. Your leftover or expired prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications can be dangerous to both you and your children. Here’s how:
- For you: Taking an expired medication might not necessarily hurt you, but it might not help you either. Drugs lose potency over time and aren’t guaranteed to work past their expiration dates. To make matters worse, most of us store medications in the bathroom or kitchen, where heat and humidity can degrade them faster.
Plus, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sometimes updates safety information about older medications, adds new warnings to labels, and even pulls meds off the market. You’ll miss out on these changes if you keep old medicines around.
- For your kids: The top three causes of pediatric poisoning seen in emergency rooms are from blood pressure medications, acetaminophen (an OTC fever reducer), and antidepressants. In fact, 6 of the top 10 causes of pediatric poisoning are due to prescription or OTC medications.
Child-resistant packaging helps, as do locked medicine cabinets. But “child-resistant” does not mean “childproof.” Child-resistant packages are designed to make it difficult for children under the age of 5 to open (but easy enough for adults to open). So, they may be less effective at keeping older kids out.
- For others: The opioid epidemic continues to devastate families and communities — in 2020, the country saw nearly 76,000 overdoses due to opioids, a 30% increase over 2019. (Opioids, when prescribed and used for medical purposes, tend to be for pain relief.)
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), most opioid addictions don’t start with illegal drugs but rather with prescriptions found in home medicine cabinets. Most people who misuse a prescription drug get it from a family member or friend.
How to dispose of old drugs outside of your home
You can’t just throw old medications in the garbage. If you don’t dispose of them properly and they get into your town or city’s water supply, they could potentially harm animals and people (a global study found pharmaceutical pollution in water on every continent). There’s also a chance that children or strangers could pick your old drugs right out of the trash can. And your personal information is often written on your pill bottles, so you want to be sure to protect that, too.
Here are some options for safely throwing out your old medications:
- Do it on National Prescription Drug Take Back Day. Every year, the DEA hosts National Prescription Drug Take Back Day at various official locations across the country. You can find the next collection date and locations at dea.gov/takebackday.
- Find a public disposal site. If you missed National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, you don’t have to wait until the next one. The safest approach is to turn in old medicines at a disposal location that’s registered with the DEA. The DEA maintains a network of public disposal locations—typically hospitals, pharmacies and law enforcement facilities — where you can drop off medications anytime. The staff there are professionals who are trained to dispose of them properly. Search for locations near you on the Department of Justice’s website.
How to dispose of old drugs inside your home
If you can’t get to a drop-off location, the FDA recommends these steps for safely disposing of drugs — including pills, liquids, creams, or patches — at home:
- Remove the drug from its original container, then mix it with a substance like cat litter, dirt, or used coffee grounds. That reduces the likelihood that your kids will think it’s candy or that a stranger will pick it out of your trash can.
- Seal the mixture in a ziplock plastic bag or an empty food container to keep the medicine from leaking out, then toss it in the trash.
- Remove, scribble over, or cover up your personal information on the original drug container to protect your identity and privacy, then dispose of it.
It’s generally not a good idea to flush old drugs down your toilet or to pour liquid drugs down the sink. However, the FDA says it’s OK to flush certain medicines that have high misuse or abuse potential, as well as those that can cause death after a single dose if they’re not taken the right way. For example, any drug that includes the word “fentanyl” can be flushed. Fentanyl is meant to treat pain but can be deadly if taken the wrong way. You can find the complete “flush list” on the FDA’s website.
How to dispose of needles
If you have diabetes or certain other conditions, you may need to inject yourself with insulin or another medication regularly. But you’ll also have to figure out a way to safely dispose of your used needles. For one thing, they can accidentally injure someone, and they can also potentially make someone sick if they’re contaminated with drugs or bodily fluids.
The FDA recommends a two-step disposal process for used needles.
- Place all needles (or similar objects) into a special sharps disposal container.
- When the container is no more than three-quarters full, dispose of it according to local guidelines. That could mean taking it to a drop-off site or a hazardous waste collection site. You can find more information on the FDA’s website.
Bottom line: Whether you have old prescription medicines or needles lying around, there are safe ways to throw them away. If you’re ever unsure of what to do, you can always consult your doctor or local pharmacist.
A great way to find a doctor is by having access to a health insurance plan. Call a licensed insurance agent at 1-800-273-8115 or visit uhone.com to find the right plan for you.
The information above is provided as general information only. It is not intended to diagnose or recommend treatment of any illness, disease or condition. You should consult a qualified medical professional if you have questions or need more information.
The Lancet, “Managing the opioid crisis in North America and beyond.” February 2, 2022. Retrieved from https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(22)00200-8/fulltext
University of California San Diego, “OTC: How Important is that Expiration Date on your Pill Bottle?” February 26, 2019. Retrieved from https://health.ucsd.edu/news/features/Pages/2019-03-11-OTC-how-important-is-that-expiration-date.aspx
University of York, “Global study finds the extent of pharmaceutical pollution in the world’s rivers.” February 14, 2022. Retrieved from https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2022/research/global-study-pharmaceutical-pollution-rivers/
U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission, Annual Report on Pediatric Poisoning Fatalities and Injuries. January 2022. Retrieved from https://www.cpsc.gov/s3fs-public/AnnualReportonPediatricPoisoningFatalitiesandInjuries_January2022.pdf?VersionId=k06y6jg2vZJgMHWbSZ1q.k0paJhv_dzT (page 11)
U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission. “PPPA.” Retrieved from https://www.cpsc.gov/FAQ/PPPA Accessed March 22, 2022
U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. “DEA National Rx Takeback.” Retrieved from https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/2022-03/New_DEA_TakeBack_Pamphlet_3.5x8.5_English%202.pdf Accessed March 21, 2022
U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. “DEA National Rx Takeback Results.” Retrieved from https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/2022-01/NTBDI-Results-october%202021.pdf Accessed March 22, 2022
U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “Don’t be tempted to use expired medicine.” Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/drugs/special-features/dont-be-tempted-use-expired-medicines Accessed March 22, 2022