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Get Rid of Your Expired Medicine – Safely

We all need to take medicine at one time or another for our health – but when that medicine is expired or no longer needed, it can be dangerous.  That’s why it’s important to know the best ways to safely dispose of it. 

If you have bottles of old medicine taking up space in your kitchen or bathroom, you’re not alone – many of us have unused medications laying around the house because we’re often unsure of the best way to get rid of them.  

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) National Take Back Day is coming up on Saturday, April 27, 2024.  This is a great time to get rid of your old medications, as there will be more drop-off locations available across the country and here in North Texas.

But even if you miss this date, you can safely discard old medicine at any time of year – you may just have to drive a bit further to drop it off or take a few extra steps to dispose of it. 

Why Does Medicine Expire?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all medicine – both prescriptions and over the counter (OTC) products – to list an expiration date.  “Once a medicine is past its expiration date, it will not be as effective and should not be used,” explains Dr. Stephen Farmer, an obstetrician and gynecologist in Bedford.  “Some expired medicines can even be harmful, as the chemical structure of the medicine may change, leading to unintended consequences.”    

It’s not uncommon to end up with medicine that’s past its shelf life.  While a prescription like an antibiotic should generally be taken until finished – always follow your prescriber’s instructions, even if you’re feeling better – it is not necessary to take all medications until they are gone. 

One example of this would be a decongestant prescribed for a bad cold or sinus infection.  Usually, your doctor will prescribe an ample supply, but tell you that you can stop taking it when you feel better.  That’s how we end up with half-full bottles of old prescriptions in our cabinets.

Of course, it’s not just prescriptions that expire.  The ibuprofen or allergy medicine that you bought at the drug store will also expire someday.  It’s a good idea to check the dates on all your OTC medicines periodically and set aside those that are past their expiration date.  You want to know that any medicine you take, be it prescription or OTC, is both effective and safe. 

Importance of Safe Storage and Disposal

We all know it’s important to keep medicine – new or old – out of reach of young children.  With the rise in accidental overdoses in the last several years, it is especially important to keep opioids, which may be prescribed for pain management, stored safely and securely. 

Once medication is no longer needed – even if it is not yet expired – it should be properly disposed of.  This prevents someone from taking it who should not – a child, a teenager or even an adult who gets confused and accidentally takes the wrong pill.   

There is a lot of confusion around the best way to get rid of old medicines.  Here’s a look at all the ways to do so, safely:

Drug Take-Back Programs

The best way to get rid of your old medicine is to take it to a drug take-back site, where you can have peace of mind knowing that the product will be disposed of properly by trained professionals. 

That’s why the DEA National RX Takeback program is so valuable.  Just visit the DEA website, input your zip code and get a list of take-back locations near you.  These will often be your local police department or a pharmacy. 

Of course, it’s good to have safe drug disposal options year-round.  Fortunately, some local police departments offer this service all year long, as do select CVS and Walgreens locations. 

Regardless of where you drop off your medicines, you should return them in their original containers and mark out any personal identifying information. 

It’s always best to confirm what products your drop-off will accept, but as a general rule, the following items are accepted:

  • Prescription medications, including narcotics, such as oxycodone
  • Pet medications
  • Ointments and lotions
  • OTC medications
  • Vitamins and supplements
  • Inhalers
  • Unused EpiPens

The following are not accepted at drug drop-off sites:

  • Syringes
  • Thermometers
  • IV bags
  • Aerosol cans
  • Used EpiPens
  • Illegal drugs

Other Disposal Alternatives

If you cannot get to a drop-off location to dispose of your old medication, there are alternatives – they just require a bit of work. 

The FDA recommends mixing old pills with dirt, coffee grinds, cat litter or some other inedible substance and then placing the entire mixture in a sealed container or bag before throwing in the trash.  This will greatly reduce the possibility that someone can access it and consume the medicine.

Figure 1: FDA

Only rarely is it appropriate to flush certain medications down the toilet.  If a drug take-back program is not an option, the FDA advises that a limited number of medications – mainly opioids – should be flushed to eliminate any possibility of an accidental overdose.   

Outside of these limited circumstances, you should never flush medications.  Wastewater treatment plants are usually not equipped to remove medicine from the water.  This threatens wildlife when the treated wastewater eventually ends up in a stream, river or lake.  And, when that fresh water makes it back to our water supply, we may end up consuming trace amounts of medicine, as well. 

Get Rid of Your Old Medicine

Most of us have old medicines sitting around our house, and we need to be conscientious about disposing of them safely.  Drug take-back programs make it easier than ever to do just that. 

“Just like we change our air conditioning filters or smoke alarm batteries periodically, we should all have a regular schedule for going through our medicine cabinets and rounding up those expired and unneeded medications,” says Dr. Mickey Hooper, an obstetrician and gynecologist in Fort Worth.   “With year-round drop off locations throughout North Texas, there’s likely one near you.  Take advantage and have the peace of mind knowing your old medicines won’t pose a risk to you and your family.” 

This article has been reviewed and approved by a panel of Privia Medical Group North Texas physicians. 

This article contains information sourced from:

U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Drug Enforcement Agency

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

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