Man examining prescription bottles

Expired Medicine: How to Dispose of It Safely

When you find a gallon of expired milk or a package of old meat in your fridge, you know what to do: A quick sniff test, and then down the drain it goes or straight into the trash. But when it comes to your medicine cabinet, do you know what to do with expired medications? There’s no sniff test, but there are guidelines you should follow when it comes to your expired and unused medications.

The Dangers of Keeping Expired and Unused Medications Around

Expired and unused medications can present several safety issues for you and your family.

Keeping your home clear of all expired and unused drugs is one way to help ensure the safety of your household.

  • Kids can take them accidentally. Kids may ingest medicines that could poison them if they’re not stored or disposed of properly.
  • The drugs can be stolen or misused. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), survey data shows that the majority of people who misuse prescription drugs get them from family and friends—often from a medicine cabinet.
  • You could take the wrong drug by mistake. Letting old and unused drugs sit around in the house may mean you’ll take the wrong thing by mistake.
  • Expired drugs can be less effective or cause an adverse reaction if taken, such as a rash or gastrointestinal distress.

Proper and Safe Disposal

Pill disposal drop offWhen you’re ready to dispose of unused and expired medications, what steps should you take? Flushing any old drug down the toilet can harm the water supply and endanger wildlife. Keeping them around can lead to misuse, theft or accidental use. So proper disposal is key for everyone’s safety. Here are your options:

  • Let VA help. As of 2018, Veterans have returned more than 99 tons of unwanted or expired medications using receptacles or mail-back envelopes.
    • Your VA may have a receptacle where you can deposit your unwanted medications. Check with your VA pharmacist on what is available at your VA.
    • Mail-back envelopes are likely available at your VA medical facility and can be sent to your home as well. You can mail your medications in for disposal that is safe for the environment. The envelopes are free and do not require postage.
  • Drop off the medications at a drug take back program or an authorized drop-off center. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has a list of drug take back locations to help you find one near you. You can also check with your pharmacist, as some pharmacies have on-site medicine drop boxes or other ways to safely dispose of unused and expired medications.
  • Dispose of them yourself using the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines. The FDA recommends using a drug take back program if possible, but if that is not an option, you can learn to safely dispose of the drugs yourself.
    • The FDA has a flush list for medications you can safely flush down your toilet. You can also read the label or the patient information leaflet with your medicine. Do not flush unless it is on this list.
    • For medications not on the flush list, they can be thrown away in the household trash if a drug take back option isn’t available. The FDA has a four-step process you can follow to safely dispose of unwanted or expired drugs in your trash, which includes removing labels, mixing them with something undesirable, putting the mixture in a sealed container and throwing it away.

Additional Resources

  • The FDA offers a Medication Disposal Q&A for more information, including how to dispose of syringes, what to do if you’re in an assisted living home and much more.
  • VA Center for Medication Safety has more information on the VA’s medication disposal program, as well as tips on how to store your medications properly and safely.
  • VA also offers Medication Reconciliation This is a way for you and your health care team to review your medicines to ensure you’re taking the right medications, that your prescriptions are up to date and that everyone is on the same page.

Keeping your home clear of all expired and unused drugs is one way to help ensure the safety of your household. Make a pledge to go through your medicine cabinet and get rid of all the medications you don’t need or that are expired.

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