Medication disposal: What to do when your meds are expired or unneeded

We all have them — those unused antibiotic capsules or expired pain relievers hanging out in the medicine cabinet. But the reality is, keeping those around is unsafe and can have dangerous consequences.

It might seem easiest to just leave those prescription and OTC medications where they are, instead of finding a way to safely dispose of them. But doing that can lead to others accidentally or intentionally misusing the medication.

In fact, did you know that unused prescription opioid medications are a leading factor in the U.S. opioid epidemic? Teens, seniors, and every in-between sneak those unused and unnoticed medications out of the cabinet and begin to use them illicitly, ultimately leading to addiction.

Beyond contributing to the opioid epidemic, these medications can also lead to overdose, drug interactions, and poisoning, among other effects.

But what are you supposed to do with those old meds? When it comes to safe medication disposal, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration suggests three strategies:

Medication disposal: Participate in take-back events
Medication take-back options are the FDA’s preferred method of medication disposal. These options come in two varieties — take-back events and permanent collection sites of unused or expired medications.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration regularly hosts National Prescription Drug Take-Back events, where collection sites are set up within the community, allowing for safe medication disposal.

Beyond these designated events, many retail pharmacies are designated by the DEA as “registered collectors” in a given location. That means that consumers can safely dispose of unneeded medications at those sites throughout the year. (Search for a local take-back collector on the DEA website.)

Medication disposal: Throw them out in the trash
Another option for medication disposal is disposing of medications in the household trash. Unless a medication is specifically labeled with disposal instructions, it can likely be safely disposed of by following these steps identified by the FDA:

  • Mix the medication with an unpalatable substance like cat litter, used coffee grounds, or dirt.
  • Place the mixture inside a container such as a sealed plastic bag.
  • Throw the container in the household trash.
  • Obscure all personal information on the prescription label of the pill bottle or packaging to make it unreadable and then dispose of the container.

Medication disposal: Flush them down the toilet
Certain medications should be immediately disposed of when they are expired or no longer needed. These meds will have specific instructions to immediately flush them down the toilet if no take-back option is available.

Why are these medications supposed to be handled that way? Because they are considered harmful and can be fatal in even limited doses if used by someone other than the person for whom they are prescribed.

Some medications will come with very specific medication disposal instructions, which should be followed exactly as directed. Otherwise, these medications can be flushed.

Wondering whether flushing medications is safe for the environment or for humans? The FDA believes the known risk of harm from exposure to these medications, particularly opioids, outweighs the risk of flushing them.

Why safe medication disposal is important
Consider the numbers:

  • Each year, more than 60,000 emergency department visits occur after children younger than age six find and ingest medication.
  • Add to that 450,000 calls that are made to poison centers for the same reason.
  • More than two-thirds of those ED visits for accidental medication exposure involve children ages one or two.
  • Nearly 20 percent of those visits result in hospitalization.

And these meds aren’t just dangerous for young children. Consider their impact on teens:

  • According to a 2013 CDC study, nearly 18 percent of high school students have taken a prescription medication that wasn’t prescribed to them.
  • Of those students, 53 percent got the drug they used from a friend or relative.

Why have unused, unneeded, or expired medications in your home? The safe option is medication disposal.

The next National Prescription Drug Take Back Day is April 30, 2022. Find a local collection site near you.

Missed National Prescription Drug Take Back Day? Search for a local take-back collector or contact your local law enforcement agency to learn about other year-round options.