Has it been a while since you looked through all the pills and other items stored in your medicine cabinet? If the answer is “yes,” include getting rid of prescription and over the counter (OTC) medications that have expired or gone unused for months to years as part of your spring cleaning. There are numerous reasons why this is a healthy decision.
Sure, it can be tempting to leave a keep a half bottle of leftover pain relievers or some antibiotics around “just in case,” but you could be putting yourself or family members at risk for accidental ingestion, misuse, or overdose. And while it’s true that some pills keep their potency for years, other drugs lose their effectiveness and still others can change composition over time and become dangerous. One example is the antibiotic tetracycline which can become toxic after its expiration date, resulting in kidney problems if ingested.
You may think you are doing friends a favor by sharing medications they might need. But remember that doctors prescribe drugs based on a person’s specific symptoms and medical history. A drug that has worked fine for you could be downright dangerous for someone else.
Keeping surplus medicine around and easily accessible can also be is a lure for people who abuse drugs. After marijuana and alcohol, the most commonly abused drugs by those over the age of 14 are prescription and over-the-counter medications, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Sadly, medications sitting around the house can provide a temptation for other family members and house guests,” said Karen Rizzo, MD, president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society. Rizzo has joined with other doctors to urge households to add “clean my medicine cabinet” to the traditional list of spring cleaning chores. “The medicine cabinet should be at the top of the list,” said emergency medicine specialist Michael Bohrn, MD. “And cleaning out a medicine cabinet won’t take much time.”
Disposing of Drugs Safely
Once you go through your pills and other related items — including wearable patches for pain relief and inhalers for respiratory problems — how do you safely get rid of medications that need to be tossed?
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says medicine take-back programs, (involving a location where you can drop off expired, unwanted, or unused medicines for safe disposal) reduce the chance a person or animal may be harmed by tossed away drugs. Contact your city or county government’s household trash and recycling service to see if there is a medicine take-back program in your area and to find out which drugs the programs will dispose of for you. Your pharmacist is another good source of information for drug disposal programs in your community.
If you can’t locate a drug take-back program, it’s good to know that almost all medicines can be either flushed or thrown out in the household trash, but only if you take specific steps to assure safety, according to the FDA. Some medicines, including powerful pain relieving narcotics and other controlled substances, come with specific disposal instructions on their labels or patient information inserts that advice immediately flushing them down the sink or toilet when the medications are no longer needed. This will reduce the chance of the drugs causing unintentional harm or being used illegally. One example, according to the FDA, is the wearable adhesive fentanyl patch which delivers a strong pain relieving drug through the skin. Fentanyl can cause severe breathing problems and even death in babies, children and pets if they accidentally come in contact with a patch.
“Even after a patch is used, a lot of the medicine remains in the patch,” said pharmacist Jim Hunter of the FDA’s Controlled Substance Staff. “So you wouldn’t want to throw something in the trash that contains a powerful and potentially dangerous narcotic that could harm others. That’s why used or unused fentanyl patched should be disposed of by flushing.”
The FDA provides an online list of medicines should be disposed of by flushing to help prevent danger to people and pets in the home.
When getting rid of old inhalers and other aerosol products, the FDA says to read handling instructions on the labels. Tossing them away can be dangerous if there’s a chance they will be punctured or thrown into a fire or incinerator. To find out how inhalers and related items should be disposed of in compliance with local regulations and laws, contact your community trash and recycling facility.
Most other old, unused and unwanted medicines can be added to household trash by following these FDA guidelines for safe disposal:
- First, before you throw out empty pill bottles or other medicine packaging, peel off or black out all information on the prescription label to make it unreadable.
- Don’t crush tablets or capsules but do mix them with an unpalatable substance such as coffee grounds or kitty litter. Then place the mixture into a sealed plastic bag or container.
- Throw the container with the drug mixture inside into your household trash, along with other garbage.