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How to Dispose of Prescription Drugs

By Jon McKenna
Medically Reviewed by Arpan Parikh, MD, MBA on July 12, 2021
Don’t just throw away or flush outdated or unused medications. Medicine disposal can affect your family and your community.

Many family medicine cabinets store long-forgotten containers of expired prescription medications, such as the pain pills you took after knee surgery or the sleeping aids you no longer need. However, your decisions about prescription medicine disposal has consequences not only for you, but for your community. Keep reading to learn how to safely dispose of prescription drugs.

Why Prescription Drug Disposal Matters

Joy Alonso, PharmD, a pharmacy professor and member of the Texas A&M Health Science Center Opioid Task Force, tells WebMD Connect to Care that medications a doctor prescribes to you for a specific condition can be harmful if someone else takes or misuses them. Also, taking an expired medication for its intended purpose may not work correctly, Alonso says.

According to the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention, throwing away prescription medications or flushing them down the toilet can have environmental consequences that affect both people and animals. Improperly discarded medicine can contaminate water sources, and both people and animals have tested positive for medications they did not take directly.

Despite drug collection events and public service announcements around the country, Americans do not think enough about safe disposal, Bob Parrado, RPh, a pharmacist and member of the Hillsborough County Anti-Drug Alliance in Tampa, Fla., tells WebMD Connect to Care. “The message is not getting through nearly enough, I feel,” Parrado says.

Prescription Drug Disposal Options

Options for safe disposal of medications include the following:

  • Drug take-back events.In April and October each year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) sponsors national prescription drug take-back days at thousands of locations nationwide. Alonso says you can ask if your nearest drugstore has a kiosk where you can drop off unused medications. You also can call your local sheriff’s or police department to ask if they will accept unused medications, Parrado says.

  • Safe disposal.If a take-back event or site is not available, trash collection can be a safe option if you take certain steps first. You can remove the medication from its container and mix it in a plastic bag with used coffee grounds to help deactivate it, Alonso says. Or, you can mix it in a bag with used cat litter to make it undesirable to people and animals. Also, some pharmacies sell biodegradable drug deactivation bags that just require a little water to safely deactivate drugs. 

  • Flushing them—after checking FDA regulations. Before you use the toilet or sink to dispose of your medication, read the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) online list of prescription and over-the-counter medications that are OK to flush.

If you aren’t ready to dispose of your medication, Alonso says you should store prescription medications in a locked cabinet or safe. Parrado says you should cover up any personal information on the container with a permanent marker before throwing it away.

Don’t Wait. Get Help Now.

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, WebMD Connect to Care Advisors are standing by to help.

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