How to Safely Get Rid of Unused Prescription Medication

Apr 26, 2018 at 11:52 a.m. ET
Image: Bortonia/Getty Images

Open almost any medicine cabinet, and you're likely to find a few old prescription bottles with unused medication. While we know we're supposed to finish rounds of antibiotics, other medicines — like those prescribed for pain or anxiety — are typically taken on an as-needed basis, and when they're no longer needed, they just sit there collecting dust. But how do you safely dispose of them? Turns out there are right ways and wrong ways — and being safe about it matters more than you think.

Why safe disposal matters

When used correctly (i.e., as instructed by a physician), prescription medication can treat serious illnesses and save lives. But in the wrong hands, they could also do a lot of harm. In fact, Scientific American reported that three-quarters of all opioid misuse starts when someone takes medication that was not prescribed for them and obtained from a family member, friend or dealer. Even if you think no one you know would ever get drugs that way, you're better safe than sorry and can rest assured you did at least a small thing to help curb the opioid crisis.

More: Why Some Cold Medications Moved (& Stayed) Behind the Counter

Also, if you have kids living in or visiting your house, it's probably a good idea to have all medications out of reach, and if it's something that's expired and/or you're not longer using, it's best to get rid of it so it doesn't end up in the wrong (small) hands.

How to safely get rid of medications

Official take-back days and sites

The preferred method by both the Food and Drug Administration and Drug Enforcement Agency is to hand your unused prescriptions to an official take-back event or site. This Saturday, April 28 is National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, operated by the DEA, where locations throughout the U.S. will take any medications off your hands. There is a search function on their website that allows users to enter their zip code and find their nearest take-back location. While these events are held every October and April, if you have medication you'd like to dispose of during other parts of the year, the DEA has approved sites that take back medication year-round.

Disposal in household trash

If you need to dispose of a medication immediately and/or there aren't any nearby take-back sites, the next best option, according to the FDA, is to throw it away in your household trash. But don't just pop the bottle in the garbage can; follow these steps instead:

  • Mix the pills (but do not crush them) with an unpalatable substance like dirt, cat litter or used coffee grounds.
  • Place the pill mixture in another container, like a sealed plastic bag.
  • Dispose of the sealed container in your household trash.

It's important not to forget the prescription bottle, though. The FDA recommends scratching out all personal information on the label, like your name, address, physician and the type of medication.

Flushing

If you've seen someone dispose of pills in a movie or on a TV show, chances are they did it by flushing them down the toilet. This option is complicated.

There is a list of certain medications the FDA deems so dangerous they should be flushed immediately when they are no longer needed and a take-back site is not an option.

MoreWhat to Do if You Encounter an Opioid Overdose

But for medications not on the FDA's list, it's best not to flush. For starters, we already have enough prescription medication in our water system thanks to us taking medications and then peeing them out according to an article in Popular Science. But while treatment plants take care of that type of contamination, introducing whole pills into the water system is a whole different story and not great for sea life.

So, while you're in spring-cleaning mode, you might as well go through that medicine cabinet (or shoebox of old prescriptions) and get rid of those you don't need anymore. You'll have more space for new products and will be keeping people safe.

Comments