How to Dispose of Old Medications

Do you have a stash of old or expired medications? Are you concerned about how to dispose of old medications? There are a lot of things you can do with old medications. However, there are also some things you shouldn’t do with unused medications. Let’s look at your options.

What to do With Old Medication?

If you are like most Americans, you probably have a medicine cabinet with medication inside. When is the last time you checked the expiration date for your medications? Everyone is probably guilty of holding on medication past its expiration date.

Many people are probably also guilty of holding onto medication they won’t use before it expires. Maybe you do this because the medicine cabinet is out of sight, and therefore also out of mind. Or maybe you do it because you don’t know what to do with your medications once you’re done with them.

Regardless of why you have old medication hanging out in your medicine cabinet, letting it sit there is not the solution. So, instead of letting it clutter your cabinet, there are some ways you can get rid of your old prescription medications, and even your expired over the counter medications.

Why Should I Dispose of Old Medications?

Disposing of old or unused medications is important for a few reasons. Old medications that are past their expiration date, should be disposed of properly. This is because medication, much like food, has an expiration date. In general, medication should not be used after its expiration date because it could be less effective.

Expired medication can even be harmful because of potential bacterial growth. According to the Food and Drug Administration, expiration dates for medications became a requirement in 1979. These dates play critical part in determining the safety and effectiveness of a medication.

Antibiotics and Expirations for Old Medications

Antibiotics are especially prone to becoming less effective after their expiration date. This can lead to an infection spreading instead of being treated. Moreover, it can also lead to antibiotic resistance. The potency of the an expired antibiotic is reduced. As a result, it allows the bacteria causing the infection to become resistant to the antibiotic.

Finally, when discussing antibiotics, the regime for antibiotics is a critical part in treating infection. Every infection is different, and may require different antibiotics. Relying on unused or expired meds to treat a presumed infection can be dangerous. Always talk to your doctor before starting an antibiotic, and never used expired antibiotics.  

Best Way to Dispose of Old Medicine

The best way to dispose of old medicine is to take it to a drug take-back location. Many hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies have a location where you can drop off old or unused medication. The location will then dispose of the medication properly for you.

The  Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) hosts a national drug take-back day at least annually. The DEA sets up temporary drop boxes for drugs to be dropped off. The purpose of this national event is to provide a safe place for people to drop off medication. In addition, they DEA can also raise awareness about the abuse of medications.

Locale Take-Back Sites

While the DEA only dedicates one day to setting up temporary take-back sites, there are a lot of year round, or permanent, take-back sites in the United States.

If you are wondering where to take old prescription medications, you can easily find out if there is a permanent drug take-back location near you by using the DEA website. All you have to do is type in your zip code, or city and state. Then, select how far you’re willing to drive to drop off your medication.

The website will tell you every registered drug take-back location in the radius you selected. If you don’t have a drug take-back location, or if the nearest location is too far for you to drive, there are other options.

Local Law Enforcement Take-Back Days

Occasionally, local law enforcement agencies host take-back days. On these days, they set up a site for the local community to drop off their unused or expired medications. From there, the police department handles the disposal process. You can always call your local police department to find out if they will be hosting a take-back event in your community. In addition, you can always call and ask if they can take unused or expired medications.

How do I Dispose of Old Medications?

If you don’t have a local drug take-back location where you can safely drop off your medication, there are other options. First you need to identify what kind of medication you need to dispose of. There are some medications that require special disposal.

Some medications cannot be flushed or put down drains, this is because they might be harmful to the environment and there might be a better or easier way to dispose of it. It is a common myth that no medications can be flushed though. The FDA states there are some medications that should be flushed instead of thrown away.


The FDA provides a list of medications that can be flushed down the toilet. It is important to remember that if the medication is NOT on this list, then it should not be flushed. There are other methods of disposals for medications not on the list. The medications on the flush list are medications that should be disposed of immediately.

Holding onto these medications poses a danger to anyone who was not prescribed the medication or is battling addiction. The FDA has determined the risk of keeping these medications in the house exceeds the potential environmental impact from flushing the medication.

The medications they list can cause death to animals and young children if they ingest even just one dose. Because of the serious risks associated with these medications when they are not taken as prescribed, they are better off flushed if they can’t ben taken to a drug take-back location immediately.  

The medications on the FDA’s Flush List include:

  • Any drug that contains the word “buprenorphine”
  • Any drug that contains the word “fentanyl”
  • Any drug that contains the world “hydrocodone” or “benzhydrocodone”
  • Any drug that contains the world “hydromorphone”
  • Any drug that contains the world “meperidine”
  • Any drug that contains he world “methadone”
  • Any drug that contains the world “morphine”
  • Any drug that contains the word “oxycodone”
  • Any drug that contains the world “oxymorphone”
  • Any drug that contains the word “tapentadol”
  • Any drug that contains the term “sodium oxybate” or “sodium oxybates”
  • Diazepam rectal gel
  • Methylphenidate transdermal system


The FDA has stated that medications not on the flush list, should not be flushed. If you feel you have a medication that needs to be disposed of quickly and you don’t have a local drug take-back location, there are other ways to dispose of the medication. Check to see if the medication you have has special disposal instructions. Typically, if the prescription medication has special disposal instructions, you will be made away by the pharmacist.

Most medications can be safely thrown in the trash, in 4 simple steps.

  • First, mix the medication with an unappealing substance. Something such as kitty litter, coffee grounds, or dirty. This will prevent animals, or people, from being attracted to it if they find it in the trashcan. Do not crush tables or capsules. You should also do this with liquid medications as well, just pour the medication in the unappealing substance.
  • Next, place the mixture in a sealable bag. Do not just mix it in a grocery bag or trash bag. Being able to seal the bag prevents it from spilling open and becoming easily accessible. Imagine if your trash can got knocked over and your medication fell out and was ingested by an animal. While some medications may not be deadly, others can have harmful side effects. For this reason, it’s important that the bad you place the mixture into, can be sealed.
  • Next, throw the sealed bag into your household trash can and take your household trash out to the dumpster or place it in your outdoor trash container. You don’t need to take the household trash out immediately, but it might be wise if you have curious kids and pets in your house that like to get into the trash.
  • Finally, scratch out all identifying information on the medication bottle and discard the bottle. Prescription bottles contain a lot of personal information, such as your doctor’s name, your full name, the medication you were taking, and possibly even insurance information. Protecting your identity is important, even when disposing of medications.

Can I Donate My Old Medications?

Medication, especially in the United States, is not cheap. Many people might think it would be better to donate the medication instead of throwing it away. Donating medications can be tricky because there are lot of laws that control how medications are distributed in the United States. Some states do have laws that allow for medications to be donated, especially medications used for the treatment of life threatening diseases such as cancer.

Can I give Old Medications to a Friend or Family Member?

Federal law prohibits controlled substances from being distributed by individuals that don’t posses specific licenses to prescribe or distribute medications, such as doctors and pharmacists. For this reason, you cannot just give your unused medication to a friend or family member. However, you might be able to find organizations that are able to take medication and redistribute it to those in need. In these situations though, the medication cannot be expired, and typically has be sealed in the original manufacturer’s bottle, not a prescription bottle.

As of 2018, there are 38 states, and Guam, that have laws pertaining to the reuse and recycling of unused medication. If you are interested in donating your unused medication, you can contact a local pharmacist. They can tell you if there are any programs in your state that accept unused medications.

Conclusions on How to Dispose of Old Medications

Disposing of old medications is a complicated topic as there are many options. Moreover, not all of your options are good and/or legal. This article is a good place to start. However, if you are in doubt of how to properly dispose of a particular medication, please call your pharmacist.

More Reading on Prescription Drugs

What is the Medicare Donut Hole? Or Doughnut Hole?
Medicare Part D Prescription Drug Plans

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