How to Safely Throw Away Old Medications

Here's what to do when it's time to clean out your medicine cabinet

illustration of old medications floating away

Look in your medicine cabinet. Are there bottles of pills in there you no longer take? If so, it’s time to get rid of them, especially if there are opioid pain medications or other controlled substances among them.

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If you take medications for arthritis, back problems, osteoporosis, or any other medical condition, start by making sure you keep only the medications you currently need.

“One way to prevent having an overload of medications is to bring everything to your next appointment with your primary care doctor to ensure your medication list is appropriate and up-to-date,” says registered pharmacist Lauren Wolfe, PharmD.

How to organize your medications

Keep a list of your current medications, which you can create yourself or ask your healthcare provider to supply you with. You, all of your doctors, including specialists, and your pharmacist need to know all the medications you currently take and the dosages.

Extra medications can pile up for a variety of reasons. You may no longer need a particular drug. Your doctor may have switched you to a different drug or changed the dose. You may have been prescribed an opioid drug for postsurgical or other acute pain but didn’t take all of it. Some medications may have expired.

State laws often require labeling of prescriptions with expiration dates one year after the sale date.

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If the pharmacist gives you pills in the original manufacturer’s bottle, look for the expiration date. The risk of taking expired medications is they might not work as well, which can be unsafe if the medications are for life-sustaining purposes. Certain medications, such as solutions, may become contaminated.

How to get rid of old medications

You have several options for discarding unwanted medications. The safest way is to take them to a drop-off location. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) sponsors two National Prescription Drug Take Back Days a year, one in April and one in October. During these events, you can dispose of any kind of medication, including narcotics.

“The rest of the year, many police stations have drug take-back bins for discarding any type of medication,” says Dr. Wolfe.

Some pharmacies have mail-back programs and disposal kiosks for unused medicines. Check with your local law enforcement officials to find an authorized collector in your area. Or check the DEA’s searchable database.

The bins at drop-off locations are closed to maintain privacy. Nonetheless, Dr. Wolfe suggests scratching personal information off pill bottles.

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If you can’t make it to a drop-off location, most drugs can be discarded in the trash. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends flushing certain medications down the toilet. These include narcotic pain medicines, such as fentanyl, hydrocodone, morphine and oxycodone. A complete list of flushable medicines is on the FDA website.

When flushing is your only option

Some people are concerned that flushed drugs may enter rivers or lakes or drinking water. The FDA has determined that the risk of contamination is low. In addition, “the risk of someone getting to these medications when discarded in the trash outweighs any potential harm from flushing them,” says Dr. Wolfe.

Ultimately, the most desirable way to get rid of medications is through a take-back program, which avoids all the potential dangers.

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