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How and when to get rid of unused medicines

Disposal of unused medicines; Expired medicines; Unused medicines

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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:

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:

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 in most communities. There may be drop boxes for disposing of medicines 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 where you can dispose of medicines or when the next event is scheduled in your community. You can also check the US Drug Enforcement Agency website for drug take-back information: www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/drug_disposal/takeback/index.html.

Check with the take-back program as to what types of medicines they don't accept.

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:

When to Call the Doctor

Call your provider if:

References

US Environmental Protection Agency website. Collecting and disposing of unwanted medicines. www.epa.gov/hwgenerators/collecting-and-disposing-unwanted-medicines. Accessed October 10, 2020.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration website. Disposal of unused medicines: what you should know. www.fda.gov/drugs/safe-disposal-medicines/disposal-unused-medicines-what-you-should-know. Updated October 1, 2020. Accessed October 10, 2020.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration website. Don't be tempted to use expired medicines. www.fda.gov/drugs/special-features/dont-be-tempted-use-expired-medicines. Updated March 1, 2016. Accessed October 10, 2020.

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Review Date: 10/10/2020  

Reviewed 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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