How to Dispose of Expired Medication Properly

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Expiration Dates for Your Protection

Pill bottle tipped over on it's side with pills spilled out.Do you have expired prescription or over the counter medicines in your cabinet? Expiration dates are applied to medicines for your protection. Using either an over the counter or prescription medication after it has expired is risky and potentially unsafe. But how do you get rid of medicines safely? Continuing reading to learn how to dispose of expired medication properly.

Dangers of Taking Expired Medicine

In 1979, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or (FDA) began requiring an expiration date on over the counter and prescribed medicines. FDA pharmacist Ilisa Bernstein says:

“Expiration dates on medical products are a critical part of determining if the product is safe to use and will work as intended,”  – U.S. Food and Drug Administration

The FDA recommends that “You should never use a medical product after it has expired.”

How to Dispose of Expired Medication

Is Flushing Safe?

Sink with running waterIt’s important to get rid of expired medications and controlled substances properly. While it may seem like flushing medicines down the toilet or sink is a good way to dispose of them, in most cases, it isn’t. Flushed medicines can contaminate waterways and cause developmental issues for fish and other aquatic life. Humans may be impacted as well. According to an article published by the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health

“an increasing number of reports from across the world have tracked active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) in surface waters and even tap water, leading environmental scientists and water utilities to look for ways to limit the amount of drugs entering the environment.” – NCBI Drugs In The Environment

Is the Trash Safe?

Throwing expired medications away in the trash is not a good idea either. Prescription and over the counter medicines that are thrown away improperly can result in accidental poisoning of children and pets. Some controlled substances, found in landfills, may even be diverted to illegal use. Additionally, prescription bottles containing your personal information can be used illegally to steal your identity or worse.

Drug Take-Back Programs are Best

To guard against accidental poisoning, environmental, personal identity and other legal issues the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Environmental Protection Agency recommend the following.

Whenever possible take expired prescription and over the counter medicines to a drug take-back program. Do Not Flush Medications Down the Toilet or Sink.

Many state and local communities offer drug take-back programs and sites that allow you to safely dispose of expired medications. Some programs offer on-site, one-way drop boxes and others even provide mail-in options. Recently many pharmacies and even some hospitals have become eligible to collect controlled substances for disposal.

AwareRX has a free, handy location tool that helps you find a disposal site near you.

What if there’s no Take-Back Site near you?

Proper methods for disposal

If a drug take-back program is not available in your area, take the unused and expired medications out of their original container.

  • Before throwing the empty container away, remove any personal information and/or the prescription label.

  • Mix the expired medication with coffee grounds, kitty litter, sawdust or some other undesirable substance.

  • Finally, put the mixture in a water tight, air tight and nondescript container like an empty can, or sealable bag.

These steps can help prevent drugs from being diverted for illegal use and can help keep children and pets safe from accidental poisoning.

Disposing of Medications with High Abuse Potential

There are medications the FDA considers as having high abuse potential. Whenever possible these should be disposed of through a drug take-back program however if one is not available in your area the FDA advises they be flushed down the toilet rather than being thrown out. The updated “Flushing List” is maintained on-line by the FDA.


Be safe and follow the directions for use, storage and disposal of your prescription and over the counter medicines. Check your expiration dates regularly and dispose of expired medicines properly.

For more information on using and disposing of medicines safely see the links listed under resources below.


AwareRX – Find a Drug Take Back or Disposal Station Near You

Use Medicines Safely

Watch this video by the FDA on Why Expiration Dates Matter



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