Why Should I Get Rid of Old Medicine?

Medicine — even medicine that's expired or seems like it would be harmless to most people — can be dangerous if not disposed of safely. It might fall into the wrong hands, along with your private health information (if it's a prescription). Or kids or pets might find it and mistake it for treats.

Expired medicine might not work as well or even at all, which is risky if it is meant to be life-saving. It may get contaminated with bacteria, or break down into toxic chemicals.

What Should I Do with My Old Medicine?

The best way to get rid of medicine you no longer need is to take it to a medicine disposal program run by a pharmacy, community organization, or government agency. You can search online for drug "take-back" programs in your area or ask at your local police station.

If there's no "take-back" program near you, throw the medicine out, either by putting it in the trash or flushing it down the toilet or sink.

Putting medicines in the trash: You can throw away most medicines after destroying them.

Flushing medicines: A few medicines are especially dangerous if taken inappropriately or accidentally, such as opioids. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends flushing these down the toilet as soon as they're not needed if no take-back option is available.

You might have heard that pouring old medicine down the drain or toilet can contaminate the water supply and cause problems for people and wildlife. Researchers are still studying this, but so far have not found that flushing a few specific medicines harms the environment. Indeed, the potential for harm is much higher if they are not flushed.

How Do I Know Which Medicines to Throw Out and Which to Flush?

Check the medicine label or the patient information leaflet that comes with the medicine for instructions on how to dispose of it. Also, the FDA has a list of medicines to be flushed when a take-back program is not available (called the "flush list").

How Do I Destroy My Old Medicine?

Destroying medicines is easy, and only takes a few steps:

  1. Dump the medicine out of its bottle and into a plastic bag you can seal, like a sandwich bag. If someone finds the medicine, they don't know what it is or who it belongs to. You can add different medicines to one bag.
  2. Destroy the medicine by adding a little bit of water to the plastic bag. This will dissolve the medicine. Then, add something that isn't food, like kitty litter, coffee grounds, or shredded paper. That way, if kids or animals find the bag, they won't eat what's inside it.
  3. Make sure the bag is tightly sealed and throw it away in the regular trash. 
  4. Before throwing out the bottle or box it came in, take off the label. This will help to keep your medical information private. If you can't remove the label, scribble over your name, address, and prescription number with a permanent black marker to make sure nobody can read it.

Talk to your pharmacist if you:

  • aren't sure what to do with medicines you have
  • own a lot of old medicines that you no longer need
  • have any other questions about getting rid of medicines 
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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2021 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.

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