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Health Education

How to dispose of medication

Cropped SingleCare logo By | March 13, 2020
Medically reviewed by Gerardo Sison, Pharm.D.

Whether it’s over-the-counter drugs like allergy medicine or prescriptions like antibiotics or insulin, it’s not uncommon for many of us to have medication at home that we no longer use. It could be because the drugs have expired or the prescription has changed, and they’re no longer needed.

But regardless of the reason, it’s important to follow proper medication disposal practices as outlined in this guide. Keep reading to learn how to dispose of prescription drugs.

How to dispose of medication - when it is past expiration date or no longer needed

Dangers of improperly disposing of medication

The dangers of improper disposal of medication (or not disposing of them at all) are wide-reaching.

Accidentally consuming expired medication

If unused and unneeded medication are not disposed of properly, there are a few dangers in play. First, you risk accidentally taking that medication.

What’s the harm in taking expired medication?

“Most medications begin to lose their potency with time, and so the most common danger of an expired medication is it may not be strong enough to control the condition it was prescribed for,” says Bob Parrado, R.Ph., a board member of Hillsborough County Anti-Drug Alliance (HCADA) in Tampa, Florida, this means your expired ibuprofen might not cure your headache very quickly—which isn’t a big deal. But if you’re relying on medication to treat a serious issue such as heart disease, you could be putting yourself at a major risk.

The FDA warns that you should never take expired medicine as they can be “less effective or risky due to a change in chemical composition.” Additionally, some medications “are at risk of bacterial growth and sub-potent antibiotics can fail to treat infections, leading to more serious illnesses and antibiotic resistance.”

Parrado even says “there are a few medications, such as tetracycline class antibiotics, that can become toxic as they degrade.”

Even medications that aren’t expired can be dangerous. For example, you might have been prescribed opioids following major surgery, and found that you didn’t use them all. When you don’t dispose of medication you’re no longer using, you risk the chance of certain drugs being misused either on purpose or by accident. According to drugabuse.gov, this is especially true with opioids, barbiturates, sleep medications, amphetamines (such as those used to treat ADHD), and some cough syrups.

Environmental concerns

When you do decide to dispose of medication, it’s important to do it in the safest way possible. Failing to safely dispose of medication can put yourself and the environment at risk.

When people improperly dispose of medication by flushing it down the toilet, rinsing it down the sink, or simply throwing it in the garbage, medications can end up in the local water system. A study conducted in 2008 showed trace amounts of medications have been found in surface, ground, and drinking water.

Even at low levels, studies have suggested the amounts are large enough to cause abnormalities in fish and may adversely affect human cells in a laboratory setting. Unfortunately, our current water treatment technology and processes don’t remove the small, dissolved medication components.

Personal safety

Improper disposal of medication can also result in risks to your own personal safety. As covered in this guide, a major part of proper disposal of medication at home is to make medications undiscoverable in household garbage. Otherwise, if the medication is a controlled substance like an opioid, there is a chance that someone who misuses medication could discover it. They might also think you have more, which can result in theft.

When should you dispose of medication?

You should dispose of medication any time it is expired, unwanted, or unused. Unwanted or unused medicines could be medications that are simply no longer needed (for example, medications that had been used by someone who has passed away) or simply a prescription that you didn’t need to use all of (such as a sleep medication).

Which drugs and medications can you discard?

You can and should dispose of any drugs or medications that are expired, unused, or unwanted. These typically fall into three categories.

  • Over-the-counter (OTC)
  • Prescription
  • Illegal

Most over-the-counter or prescription drugs can be disposed of at home or at a pharmacy.

For medications or drugs that may be controlled or illegal, the Drug Enforcement Agency hosts a series of Take Back Days where law enforcement and federal agencies accept drugs and medications for disposal with no questions asked. The most recent Take Back Day was in Oct. 2019 and boasted over 6,000 collection sites with an average of 120 sites per state.

How can I find medication disposal near me?

You can find safe drug disposal sites through a variety of online tools. We recommend the following:

How to dispose of medication at pharmacies

If you don’t feel comfortable disposing of medication at home, there are pharmacies, hospitals, and other healthcare facilities that will take your unwanted medication and dispose of it for you. Since 2014, pharmacies have been able to voluntarily participate in year-round drug take-back programs.

Those who want to dispose of medication through a pharmacy have two options (depending on the pharmacy). They can either provide patients with the option to mail in their unwanted medications or place them in a pharmacy-maintained collection receptacle.

How do pharmacies dispose of medications?

Typically, medications that are disposed via take-back programs are completely incinerated. This guarantees the medications will not be misused or accidentally used by anyone.

Does CVS dispose of old medications?

As of 2018, over 1,600 CVS locations provided customers with the ability to dispose of old medications. You can find those locations via the Drug Disposal location search tool from Safe.pharmacy. CVS locations that don’t offer a kiosk may provide other options such as mail packets, if you request them.

How do I dispose of prescription drugs at Walgreens?

As of June 2019, every Walgreens location in the United States has been outfitted with year-round safe drug disposal options. This means at every Walgreens, you will either have access to a safe Walgreens medication disposal kiosk, or a pharmacist can provide you with DisposeRX packets. Other options may be available upon request.

How to dispose of medication at home

When it comes to disposing of unwanted medication at home, the recommended course of action by the FDA is the MPTS method: mix, place, throw, scratch out. Using the MPTS method will reduce the likelihood that your unwanted medication will be misused.

How to throw medications away safely

Mix

The first step in disposing of unwanted medication in your home garbage is to mix the medication with an unappealing substance such as dirt, cat litter, or used coffee grounds. Please note that you should NOT crush tablets or capsules.

Place

Next, you will place the mixture in its own container such as a sealed paper or plastic bag. Placing the mix in a container ensures the unwanted medications won’t leach into soil and water systems once they’re in a landfill site.

Throw

After the mixture is placed in a sealed bag, throw it in your household trash.

Scratch out

Finally, when disposing of the prescription bottle, scratch out all personal information including your name, pharmacy information, name of the prescription, and prescription number. Then you can dispose of the container.

What medications can be flushed?

According to the FDA’s Flush List, you can flush the following medications if you can’t make it to a drug take-back facility and need to dispose of your medication right away:

  • Benzhydrocodone / Acetaminophen (Apadaz)
  • Buprenorphine (Belbuca, Bunavail, Butrans, Suboxone, Subutex, Zubsolv)
  • Diazepam (Diastat / Diastat AcuDial rectal gel)
  • Fentanyl (Abstral, Actiq, Duragesic, Fentora, Onsolis)
  • Hydrocodone (Anexsia, Hysingla ER, Lortab, Norco, Reprexain, Vicodin, Vicoprofen, Zohydro ER)
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid, Exalgo)
  • Meperidine (Demerol)
  • Methadone (Dolophine, Methadose)
  • Methylphenidate (Daytrana transdermal patch system)
  • Morphine (Arymo ER, Embeda, Kadian, Morphabond ER, MS Contin, Avinza)
  • Oxycodone (Combunox, Oxaydo/Oxecta, OxyContin, Percocet, Percodan, Roxicet, Roxicodone, Targiniq ER, Xartemis XR, Xtampza ER, Roxybond)
  • Oxymorphone (Opana, Opana ER)
  • Sodium Oxybate (Xyrem oral solution)
  • Tapentadol (Nucynta, Nucynta ER)

If you’re at all able to take the above medications to an official take-back site (including a pharmacy), it is highly recommended that you do so. However, since the above medications are often misused and can be fatal with a single dose if not used according to a prescription, the FDA has approved them to be flushed.

How to dispose of prescription pill bottles

Whether you dispose of your medication in the garbage or flush it down the toilet, you should properly dispose of your prescription containers as well. Those who misuse drugs might find the bottles in your trash, and (if they think you have more of the medication they seek), target your home.

As mentioned above, before discarding your prescription bottles, you should scratch out any personal information, including the medication, your name, the pharmacy (including its number), and the prescription number.

pill bottle with info scratched out

If you remove the sticker label completely, you may be able to recycle your prescription bottle. However, not all bottles can be recycled curbside by all municipalities. The issue is, in part, due to the small size of a pill bottle. Many facilities simply can’t handle recyclables that small.

If your area cannot curbside recycle pill bottles, your pharmacy might. Check with your local pharmacy to see if they’re able to dispose of your empty pill bottles.

What is the best way to dispose of prescription drug receipts?

In order to protect your privacy and ensure your safety against those who misuse drugs, you should take the same care with your prescription drug receipts as you do with your containers. This means you should do your best to destroy any personal information on those receipts or any paperwork that comes with your medications once you’re done with them.

Common methods of destroying that information include shredding (as you would other sensitive documents) or blacking out sensitive information with a dark marker.

prescription sheet with info scratched out

The methods outlined in this guide might seem like overkill to some. But with prescription drug misuse on the rise, it doesn’t hurt to be too safe. After all, the CDC reports that 46 people die every day from prescription opioid misuse alone. And the National SAFE KIDS Campaign Poisoning Fact Sheet says that 67,700 children under 4 years old were seen admitted to emergency departments for accidental medication exposure.

By doing your part to ensure your medications, regardless of type, are disposed of properly, you could be saving lives while keeping yourself, your family, and your pets safe.

For more information about keeping your family safe from prescription drug misuse, please read our related guide.