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Medication Management

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How to Safely Dispose of Your Loved One’s Unused Prescription Drugs
By Douglas Throckmorton, M.D.

Caregivers often help their loved ones manage their medicines, ensuring that any and all prescriptions are filled, and that the medications are taken correctly and on schedule. It can be a lot of work to juggle multiple prescriptions and remember their various schedules. Some of these medications may go unused or expire before being consumed, and the bottles may be pushed to the back of the medicine cabinet and forgotten until you need that space for something else. So what should be done with them?

Most of us know not to share our medicines with others. We know that doctors prescribe medicines based on our individual symptoms and specific medical history. What works for your loved one or you could be dangerous for someone else. Certain medications are especially harmful if taken by someone other than the person for whom they were prescribed. If a prescription medication falls into the wrong hands—a child’s for instance—serious consequences, like hospitalization and possibly death, can result. Pets are also at risk. Hanging on to certain medications when they’re no longer needed—especially those with addictive properties—also increases the risk of them falling into the wrong hands, potentially leading to drug abuse.

The good news is that there are several ways to rid our households of unwanted or unused prescription medications. One is by participating in drug take-back programs. Since 2010, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA’s) National Prescription Drug Take Back Initiative has organized twice-yearly events to help us clean out our medicine cabinets. Unused or expired drugs are collected and then safely incinerated. These drug take-back days give Americans an opportunity to responsibly dispose of medications.

The DEA’s efforts have been paying off, as the volume of drugs collected has grown exponentially. During its first drug take-back event in October 2010, the agency collected 242,000 lbs. of prescription drugs from 4,000 sites. In April 2016, nearly 900,000 lbs. of drugs were collected from 5,400 sites. Mark your calendars: the next drug take-back day is coming up on April 29.

If you don’t have access to drug take-back opportunities or locations, or you need to get rid of some prescription drugs at another time of year, first check the drug’s labeling—there might be specific instructions for disposal. If not, there are a couple of other options, and which one you should choose depends on the drug itself. Many drugs can be thrown into the trash, provided these simple safety measures are taken:

  • First, mix medicines with an unpalatable substance such as dirt, kitty litter, or used coffee grounds. Do not crush tablets or capsules, however.
  • Then, place the mixture in a container such as a sealed plastic bag, and throw the container in the trash.
  • To protect your medical privacy, remove or scratch out all personal information printed on your empty pill bottle or medicine packaging before disposing of it.

A small number of medications should not be thrown in the trash, and are better off being flushed down the toilet or sink. Generally, FDA does not recommend flushing medication—we don’t want pharmaceuticals unnecessarily ending up in our water supply—but the potential risks in the home associated with certain drugs mean they need to be disposed of as soon as they are no longer needed. For example, several painkillers, such as fentanyl and oxycodone, should be flushed and not left in the medicine cabinet. FDA’s “flush list” describes what medicines should be flushed to avoid risks to people and pets in the home.

Caregivers are not the only ones who have a responsibility to keep medicines safe. We all need to make sure drugs are disposed of promptly when they expire or are no longer needed. The upcoming April 29 drug take-back day will be held at multiple locations throughout the country. If there is no take-back location near you, contact your local waste management authority to learn about medication disposal options in your area. You can also check with your local authorities to find out if any retail pharmacies, hospitals or law enforcement locations are official collection sites.

Douglas Throckmorton, M.D., Deputy Director for Regulatory Programs, Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, FDA

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