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What Should You Do With Your Unused Medications?




“Besides their substantial lifesaving importance, medications can also be disastrous when inappropriately taken and managed,” Ebrahim, A. J., Teni, F. S. and Yimenu, D. K. “Medication waste management is of great importance because of the potential environmental hazards and public health risks.”


Studies show that more than half of all medications are inappropriately prescribed, and dispensed, the authors add. Data from the World Health Organization indicate that “there is only 50% global adherence to medications taken for a long period of time.”


In other words, many people have old or unused prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medicines lying around the house. Therefore, it is important to discuss how to safely dispose of unused medications.


When to Get Rid of Medicines


Medicine should be thrown out when

  • There's still some medicine left in your medicine cabinet after your health care provider changes your prescription.

  • Your health care provider suggests you stop taking the medicine because you're feeling better.

  • The OTC medicines are no longer needed.

  • You have expired medicine.

  • It is not safe to take expired medicines. Perhaps they are no longer as effective, or perhaps the medication's ingredients have changed. If this is the case, they become unsafe to use.

You should check the labels of medicines regularly to find out if they are expired. Throw away any that are outdated or expired.


Medicines that are expired or unwanted can cause:

How to Properly Dispose of Expired Medications


Keeping medicines out of reach of others helps prevent their accidental or intentional use. It also keeps harmful residues from being released into the environment.

Labels or information booklets should include disposal instructions.


Do Not Flush Unused Medications


The majority of medicines should not be flushed or dumped down the drain. Some medicines contain chemicals that don't degrade. When flushed down the toilet or sink, these residues can pollute our water resources. As a result, fish and marine life may suffer. The remaining residues may also make their way into our drinking water.



In order to minimize any potential harm, it is necessary to dispose of some medicines as soon as possible. Flushing them will prevent them from being misused. This includes opioids or narcotics that are prescribed for pain management. ONLY flush medicines if the label specifically indicates that you should.


Disposing of Medicines in Household Trash


Since flushing your unused medications isn't recommended, you can throw them into your household trash. Among these are prescriptions and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs in tablet, liquid, drop, patches, and cream form.


When disposing of these medications, follow these steps;

  • First, drugs should be taken out of their original containers. Then they should be mixed with something undesirable, such as coffee grounds, dirt, or cat litter to make them unrecognizable.

  • To prevent the drug from leaking or spilling out, place it in something you can close (a re-sealable bag, empty container, etc.)

  • Ensure all personal information on medicine packaging is scratched out in order to protect your privacy and identity.

  • Ensure your identity and privacy are protected by scratching out all your personal information from the empty medicine packaging. Toss the packaging in the trash.

Consult your pharmacist or health care provider if you have questions about your medicine.


Disposing Fentanyl Patches


A fentanyl patch is one example of a product containing an opioid medicine that may be harmful to people who aren't prescribed it. Fentanyl patches act as a delivery system for strong pain medications.


Although patches are used, some medicine remains afterward. This is why it is important to flush out used or leftover patches after use.


Disposing of Inhaler Products


Patients with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease may use inhalers that pose an environmental concern. Inhalers and aerosols should be handled according to instructions on the label.


Products such as these are potentially dangerous if punctured or thrown into fires or incinerators. Contact your local trash and recycling facility to properly dispose of these products.


Drug Take-Back Programs


You should bring your medications to drug take-back programs if you want to dispose of them properly. Medication waste is safely disposed of through these programs.

National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day is sponsored by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in communities across the country -- usually at the end of every October and April. Communities also participate individually. Find a DEA-authorized collector in your neighborhood by checking with your local law enforcement or the DEA.


Your pharmacist can also provide you with more information. You can discard unused medications safely at some pharmacies with medicine drop-off boxes, mail-back programs, and other options.


1. Ebrahim AJ, Teni FS, Yimenu DK. Unused and Expired Medications: Are They a Threat? A Facility-Based Cross-Sectional Study. Journal of Primary Care & Community Health. January 2019. doi:10.1177/2150132719847857


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