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How to Safely Store and Dispose of Your Medications

Trisha LaPointe

Take a glance inside your bathroom medicine cabinet. What did you find? A full bottle of that heart medication your doctor told you to stop taking? A few leftover pills of your pain medication you received for your tooth extraction?  Other prescription vials from who knows how long ago?

Many people wonder what they should do with all of the leftover and expired medications in their households. Should you keep it or toss it? Bring it back to your pharmacy? Is it even still good to take?

Here are some guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration for you to keep in mind when disposing of old or unused medications:

  1. Follow the specific disposal instructions that may be listed on your prescription label. Although you should not flush your medications down the toilet unless directed to do so, the FDA does have a list of medications that can be flushed away.
  2. Take advantage of your community’s “drug take back” programs. To find out upcoming dates and participating locations, call your county/city government trash and recycling service or your state/local law enforcement.
  3. Check out this Drug Enforcement Agency link for upcoming dates on National Drug Take Back Days.
  4. If your medication does not have any specific disposal instructions and there are no available take-back programs near you, you can dispose of them in your household trash:
    1. Remove or scratch off any personal information on your prescription vial label.
    2. Do NOT crush tablets or capsules when throwing away.
    3. Mix your medications with an undesirable substance such as coffee grounds or cat litter. Place this mixture in a plastic, sealable bag or container.
    4. Ask your local retail pharmacist if his or her company has a drug take back program, such as mail-away envelopes from the “TakeAway Environmental Return System.” Services like these may come with additional fees (note that this is often the only way that many retail pharmacies are permitted to take back unused or expired medications).

Before you choose to dispose of a medication, how can you tell if it is still good or not? If you look on your prescription label, you will find an expiration date. Some medications are only good for a certain amount of time from opening date. For instance, some liquid antibiotics are only good for 10 days once they have been mixed.

Many times, however, you will see that your prescription expires one year from the date it was filled. This date ensures that the drug is safe and effective during its intended shelf life. As your medication sits in that vial, it loses potency over time; this can affect how well your medication is working.

It’s true that many medications do last well past their expiration dates, but if you are taking a drug such as a heart medication, you surely want that drug to do its job.

QuoteHow can you ensure your medications remain in tip-top shape to do what they are supposed to do? Location has a big impact on how effective your medicine is. One of the worst places to store your medications is in your bathroom. The temperature changes and moisture can cause the drug to become less effective. These conditions can even change the drug’s chemistry.

It’s also important to follow any storage instructions, such as the need for refrigeration, that are on the prescription label. Most medications can be stored at room temperature, away from any moisture or light. If you are not sure, a quick call to the pharmacy can resolve any questions you may have.

Editor’s Note: Kelly Brady, a pharmacy student at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences University-Boston, contributed to this article. Kelly is slated to graduate with a Pharm.D. degree in 2014.

Trisha LaPointe, Pharm.D., BCPS, Associate Professor of Pharmacy Practice, Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, Boston, Mass.