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How and when to get rid of unused medicines

Many people have unused or expired prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) medicines at home. Learn when you should get rid of unused medicines and how to dispose of them safely.

When to Get Rid of Medicines

You should get rid of a medicine when:

  • Your health care provider changes your prescription but you still have some medicine left
  • You feel better and your provider says you should stop taking the medicine
  • You have OTC medicines that you no longer need
  • You have medicines that are past their expiration dates

DO NOT take expired medicines. They may not be as effective or the ingredients of the medicine may have changed. This can make them unsafe for use.

Read the labels regularly to check the expiration date of a medicine. Discard any that have expired and those you no longer need.

Storing expired or unwanted medicines can increase the risk of:

  • Taking the wrong medicine due to mix-ups
  • Accidental poisoning in children or pets
  • Overdose
  • Misuse or illegal abuse

How to Dispose of Expired Medicines Safely

Disposing medicines safely prevents others from using them accidentally or intentionally. It also prevents harmful residues from getting into the environment.

Look for disposal instructions on the label or information booklet.

DO NOT FLUSH UNUSED MEDICINES

You should not flush most medicines or pour them down the drain. Medicines contain chemicals that may not break down in the environment. When flushed down the toilet or sink, these residues can pollute our water resources. This may affect fish and other marine life. These residues can also end up in our drinking water.

However, some medicines must be disposed of as soon as possible to reduce their potential harm. You can flush them to prevent someone from using them. These include opioids or narcotics usually prescribed for pain. You should ONLY flush medicines when it specifically says to do so on the label.

DRUG TAKE-BACK PROGRAMS

The best way to dispose of your medicines is to bring them to drug take-back programs. These programs safely dispose of medicines by burning them up.

Drug take-back programs are organized from time to time in most communities. Or, your town may have special days when you can bring hazardous household items such as unused medicines to a specific location for disposal. Contact your local trash and recycling service to find out when the next event is scheduled in your community.

Medicines NOT accepted by most drug take-back programs include:

  • Liquid medicines
  • Needles
  • Sprays
  • Inhalers
  • Creams

HOUSEHOLD DISPOSAL

If you don't have a take-back program available, you can throw your medicines out with your household trash. To do so safely:

  • Take the medicine out of its container and mix it with other unpleasant garbage such as kitty litter or used coffee grounds. DO NOT crush pills or capsules.
  • Place the mixture into a sealable plastic bag or sealed contain that won't leak.
  • Be sure to remove your Rx number and all personal information from the medicine bottle. Scratch it off or cover it with a permanent marker or duct tape.
  • Throw the container and pill bottles out with the rest of your trash.

When to Call the Doctor

Call your provider if:

  • Someone consumes expired medicines accidentally or on purpose
  • You have an allergic reaction to a medicine

Alternative Names

Disposal of unused medicines; Expired medicines; Unused medicines

References

US Environmental Protection Agency. Collecting and disposing of unwanted medicines. Environmental Protection Agency web site. Updated April 25, 2016. www.epa.gov/hwgenerators/collecting-and-disposing-unwanted-medicines. Accessed December 19, 2016.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Disposal of unused medicines: what you should know. U.S. Food and Drug Administration web site. Updated November 25, 2016. www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/BuyingUsingMedicineSafely/EnsuringSafeUseofMedicine/SafeDisposalofMedicines/ucm186187.htm.  Accessed December 19, 2016.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Don't be tempted to use expired medicines. U.S. Food and Drug Administration web site. Updated March 1, 2016. www.fda.gov/drugs/resourcesforyou/specialfeatures/ucm481139.htm. Accessed December 19, 2016.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. How to dispose of unused medicines. U.S. Food and Drug Administration web site. Updated October 25, 2016. www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm101653.htm. Accessed December 19, 2016.

Review Date 12/10/2016

Updated by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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