Have you gone through your medicine cabinet lately? It’s a good idea to periodically check for unused and expired prescription and over-the-counter medications (including inhalers) and supplements. Some medications can become toxic the longer they are past the manufacturer’s expiration date.
Use daylight saving time as a reminder to remove expired medications from your home.
Do not give medications prescribed to you or your family members to anyone else. They could be harmful to others.
National Jewish Health is a disposal site for Colorado's Take Meds Seriously program. Learn more.
Proper medication disposal:
- Prevents drug abuse and health risks. Teenagers ages 12-17 are an at-risk group who may try to experiment with what they find in the medicine cabinets of friends and family members.
- Protects the environment by keeping it out of lakes, rivers, streams and other natural resources.
- Ensures wildlife and animals “nosing around” in your garbage won’t ingest harmful medications.
- More than 1 million American children under age 5 receive treatment for poisoning by household chemicals and medications each year.
- 1 in 5 teens report abusing prescription drugs that were not prescribed to them.
- Over 67 percent of patient visits to doctor offices involve drug therapy.
How to Properly Dispose of Medications and Supplements
1. Identify Expired Medications
Once you’ve removed the expired medications and supplements from your medicine cabinet, set them aside. Make sure they are placed out of reach of both children and pets. Separate out narcotics and controlled substances, because these drugs require special handling.
2. Follow Label Directions
Read the directions on the label or accompanying patient information for any specific directions on how to dispose of that particular medication. If you have unused cancer medications; ask your doctor about how to dispose of those medications.
Do not flush any medication down the toilet, and do not pour any medication down a sink or drain.
3. Look for Drug Take-Back Programs
Safe medication disposal is important, and most areas have local disposal programs that allow residents to bring expired or unused prescription medications to a centralized location for proper disposal. Search the Internet for local household medical waste disposal.
Pharmacies also are a good resource for medication disposal. Many pharmacies sell special envelopes used to mail in expired or unused medications via the U.S. Postal Service. This is a good option if there isn’t a take-back program in your area. Certain restrictions on the types of medications accepted may apply.
Periodically, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) partners with local communities to offer a National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. You may also use the DEA site search to find a Controlled Substance Public Disposal Location near you.
4. Safely Preparing Medications for Your Trash
When throwing away medication in your trash, follow these guidelines.
- Remove the medication from its original container.
- Mix the medication with an undesirable substance like kitty litter or used coffee grounds. It will appear unrecognizable to pets and people who might intentionally go through your trash.
- Place the medication and undesirable substance in a sealable bag or empty container to prevent it from leaking out of the garbage bag.
- Remove or scratch out any personal information on the empty prescription containers to protect your privacy. Trash or recycle these containers.
5. Disposing of Epinephrine Injectors
Take used and expired injectors to a health care provider’s office or to a hospital for proper disposal.
6. Disposing of Needles and Sharps
Ask your doctor how to dispose of these items. You may find appropriate collection sites in physician offices, clinics, hospitals, health departments, police and fire stations and medical waste facilities. Some providers offer a mail back program.
The Centers for Disease Control and the Environmental Protection Agency offer more sharps disposal information.
If you are still unsure about how to properly dispose of medications and supplements, ask your pharmacist.
This information has been approved by Rene Sprik, RPh, PharmD (March 2016).