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How to safely dispose of unused medicine

Safe disposal practices help keep prescription medicines from potentially harming children, pets or adults.

Used properly, medicines can play an important role in treating a variety of health problems. But taking a medicine that isn't intended for you could be dangerous.

To help make sure prescription medications are only used by the people they're intended for, it's important to store them in a secure place—and to properly dispose of any unneeded leftovers.

The first step in deciding how to dispose of a medicine you no longer need is to read the label and patient information that came with the drug to see if there are specific disposal instructions.

In general, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Office of National Drug Control Policy note that medicines can be disposed of in the following ways:

Through a drug take-back program. To find a program in your area that collects drugs for safe disposal, check with your pharmacist or call your city or county government health offices. Be sure to find out if there are any rules about the types of medicines that can be dropped off.

Flushing. Some medicines, because they can be especially dangerous if a child ingests them, should be flushed down the toilet, but only if they're on the FDA's flush list and a take-back option is not readily available. Examples may include narcotic pain relievers oxycodone and fentanyl. If the drug is a skin patch, such as fentanyl, fold it so it sticks together before you flush it.

You can see a list of drugs FDA says should be flushed here.

FDA reports that there is a negligible risk to the environment from flushing these drugs. In addition, the benefit of getting certain powerful drugs out of your home right away far outweighs any risks to human health and the environment, as long as you only flush them if they're on the flush list and a take-back option is not readily available, according to FDA.

In the trash. If the drug's label doesn't specifically say to flush the medicine, you can put it in the trash. But first, take a few precautions to keep the medicine from being found and to make it unappealing if it is discovered. Be sure to:

  • Take the medicine out of its container and mix it with something a person or pet wouldn't want to eat. This could be old coffee grounds, kitty litter or even dirt.
  • Next, put the mixture in a container you can close. A sealable bag or a used margarine tub or other food container with a lid should work.
  • Once you've closed the container, place it in the trash.

You can put the empty drug container in the trash as well. But it's a good idea to hide or remove any personal information first.

Reviewed 2/20/2022

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