This article was last updated on March 24, 2021.
When was the last time you cleaned out your medicine cabinet and checked for expired or unused prescriptions? Remember, what’s safe for you might be harmful to someone else.
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Millions of Americans abuse prescription drugs each year, the majority of which are obtained from family or friends — often from the home medicine cabinet. And, if drugs fall into the wrong hands, they could cause accidental poisoning or overdose.
If you’ve been hanging on to old prescriptions, there are safe ways to get rid of them.
Option 1: Drop them off in a secured location.
To help combat the growing problem of prescription drug abuse, most law enforcement centers and some pharmacies have permanent collection boxes for old or unused medications. Most are available during business hours, but some are available 24/7.
To find a drop-off location External Site near you, call your local police station or sheriff’s office to see if it has a prescription drug disposal program. Your local pharmacy may also have take-back programs External Site.
Option 2: Participate in drug take-back day.
If you’re in an area that doesn’t have a drop-off location nearby and you don’t want to dispose of medications yourself, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration sponsors National Prescription Drug Take Back Day twice a year in April and October at locations nationwide. The next Drug Take Back Day is on April 24, 2021. Find a nearby collection site External Site or call 800-882-9539 for more information.
Option 3: Dispose of them yourself.
While collection locations or designated take-back days are going to be your best — and safest — bet, you can still safely dispose of old medications on your own. Nearly all medications, both over-the-counter and prescription, can be tossed in the trash if you follow these steps:
- Make the medications unappealing. Take them out of their original bottle or container and mix them with something that people or animals won’t want to comb through, such as cat litter, coffee grounds or dirt.
- Prevent spills or leaks. Put the mixture in a zip-top bag, empty can or other container. This also deters anyone who might go through your garbage looking specifically for drugs.
- Throw it away. Remember to toss the original pill bottle in a separate garbage bag, and scratch out any identifying personal information to protect your privacy.
There are some medications, like strong painkillers, that shouldn’t be thrown away. If a take-back option is not readily available, these medications should be flushed down the toilet as soon as you're done using them to prevent them from being accidentally ingested by children or pets. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration maintains a list of medications External Site that should be flushed instead of tossed.
- Samhsa.gov — 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables Opens PDF
- Drugabuse.gov — Popping Pills: A Drug Abuse Epidemic Opens PDF
- EPA.gov — Contaminants of Emerging Concern including Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products External Site
- FDA.gov — Flushing of Certain Medicines External Site
- Drugabuse.gov — Misuse of Prescription Drugs External Site
- FDA.gov — Disposal of Unused Medicines: What You Should Know External Site
- Odcp.iowa.gov — Prescription Drug Take Backs External Site
- Fda.gov — Where and How to Dispose of Unused Medicines External Site
- Takebackday.dea.gov — DEA National Rx Takeback Opens PDF
- Drugfree.org — Safe Drug Displosal: A Guide for Communities Seeking Solutions Opens PDF
- Takebackday.dea.gov — Welcome External Site
- Fda.gov — Medicine Disposal: Questions and Answers External Site