Proper Disposal of Unused Medications

Prescription medications are a very important part of millions of Americans lives. However, expired medications or drugs that are left unused often stay in the back of medicine cabinets for months or sometimes even years. These unused and unattended drugs, whether expired or not, become serious health hazards to toddlers, teens, and even family pets who may inadvertently consume them. Some medications could even be fatal if accidentally ingested. Did you know that researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that nearly 70% of prescription opioids in homes with children aren’t stored safely?

There are other important safety issues at play here, as well. The misuse of prescription narcotic drugs is becoming an increasingly serious public health concern. Over 46,000 Americans die each year from drug-related deaths, and over half of them are related to heroin and prescription opioids.

These statistics really show the need for proper disposal of expired/unused prescription medications from homes to help prevent any misuse or accidental consumption of dangerous drugs. But how? In addition to Drug Take Back Day and similar community programs (check with your local law enforcement to find out if your community participates – and when it does), medications can be properly disposed of at home. Below are the FDA’s recommendations on proper home-disposal of your unused and expired prescription drugs.


There are two different ways to dispose of medicine at home, depending on the drug.

  1. Flushing. Some medicines can be especially harmful to others, so they have specific directions to flush them down the sink or toilet immediately when they are no longer needed.

But how do know if your mediation calls for disposal by flushing? You can check the label or a patient information leaflet, if it requires this method of disposal, it will say so. You can also check the FDA’s list of medicines recommended for disposal by flushing.

  1. Disposing in the trash. Almost all medicines (with the except of those that call for being flushed) can be thrown away in your household trash. This includes both prescription and over-the-counter drugs in the form of pills, liquids, drops, patches, creams, and inhalers.

Follow these steps to ensure a proper disposal:

  1. Remove the drugs from their original containers and mix them with something undesirable (commonly used items for this are used coffee grounds, dirt, or cat litter). This makes the drugs less appealing to children and pets who could otherwise ingest them, as well as rendering them unrecognizable to someone who could be intentionally go through the trash in search of drugs.
  2. Put the mixture you made in something close-able, like a resealable storage bag or empty can, to prevent the drugs from leaking or spilling out.
  3. Throw the container away in the garbage.
  4. Scratch out any personal information that might be on the empty medicine packaging to protect your identity and privacy, then throw the packaging away.

Be sure to ask your health care provider or pharmacist if you have any questions about your medications and how to dispose of them. If you’re looking for more information about Drug Take Back Day or want to find a location near you, you can visit the FDA’s Take Back Day website.