Dealing with Unused Medications

Updated: August 22, 2023

Medicines, dietary supplements, and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs may be important for our health and well-being, but they can also be a health risk in the home, especially if there are children present. Keeping unused or expired medications, whether yours or a loved one’s after their death, creates an unnecessary and avoidable risk of poisoning. 

  • Exposure to medicine in the home is a major source of unintentional poisonings in children in the United States.
  • Each year in the United States, approximately 60,000 emergency department (ED) visits and 450,000 calls to poison centers are made after children under 6 years of age find and ingest medication without caregiver oversight.  
  • Over two-thirds of ED visits for accidental pediatric medication exposures involve children 1-2 years old and nearly 20% result in hospitalization. 

You may even have medications, especially pain medication, that others could steal to use recreationally or sell, which are best disposed of immediately.

Medication should not routinely  be put in the trash or flushed down the toilet until you look up the recommended form of disposal for that medication.

The preferred choice is to find a location that has a drop box or kiosk for your unused medications.

  • This could either be a permanent location or during a periodic take-back program.
  • Contact your local police department or pharmacies to find out if they have year-round medicine disposal drop boxes and when you can use them.
    • If not, they may be able to tell you of the closest location or when the next scheduled DEA take-back event is.
    • You can check the DEA website for the date and local collection sites.
    • They are sometimes placed in fire stations, hospitals, and municipal buildings.
  • The major disadvantage is that take-back centers may have limited times when you can bring medications in, requiring you to either wait or search around.

Alternatively, you may be able to dispose of it yourself.

  • When attempting to dispose of a medication yourself, the specific details you need to know are the type of medication, the recommendations for disposing those medications, and federal, state, and local laws regarding their disposal. The Federal Drug Disposal Act regulates most of the options.
  • The major advantage is that you can do it immediately and not have to look for and drive to take-back locations or wait until the next take-back day.
  • It is important to know the impact of each disposal method, usually environmental, and how to do it properly.

You may also want to look into whether you can donate certain medications before getting rid of them.

Some of their medications may have been autoinjectors or needed a needle and syringe to administer. NeedyMeds’ Safe Needle Disposal describes ways to dispose of used and unused needles.


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