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What Are The Safest Ways To Dispose of Old/Expired Medicines?

By Dhwani Jerajani +2 more


Our medicine shelves are usually cluttered with medications, some of which we have stopped taking and some of which we may have forgotten to take. These medicines are either no longer required or are well beyond their expiry date. Improper disposal of such drugs can lead to a safety issue for people as well as the environment. Accidental poisoning, overdose, abuse are just a few problems that could arise by unused or expired prescription drugs being thrown in the trash from where they could be easily retrieved and abused or sold illegally. These medicinal drugs can be just as dangerous as street drugs when taken without a doctor’s prescription or supervision. Safe removal of old/expired medicine protects you and others. Proper disposal of drugs can also prevent the negative and toxic effects on our environment that can take place if the drugs are not disposed of correctly.

Disposing Expired Medicine

Why is the Proper Disposal of medicines required?

Drugs in the Environment and Water Supply

Flushing down any substance including drugs results in them entering the water supply. Treating water before putting it back into the Public water supply does remove foreign substances, however, they do not process water to remove drugs. The substances become a part of both water and soil, thereby harming the environment. Our drinking and household water are part of this very environment. The drugs we take are usually processed and eliminated as by-products when we urinate and defecate, these eventually enter the waste stream, something we can’t do anything about. However, properly disposing of the original drugs will prevent them from leaching into the ecosystem.

Drugs Get into the Wrong Hands

Drug abuse is a well-recognized and rampant problem. By not disposing of drugs correctly, we increase the chances of them falling into wrong hands. It may be a teenager who steals them for his own use, a curious toddler who puts everything in her mouth or a trash picker combing through a dumpster.

Taking the Wrong Drugs or Expired Drugs

When drugs go out-of-date or aren’t well labeled, it’s easy for someone who is sick or confused or simply can’t see well, to swallow the wrong ones. These problems can be prevented by disposing of drugs as they expire or as they are no longer required. Labeling the drugs with large, colorful letters will also help the patients take the right drugs.

Storing your medicines

Storing your medicines properly ensures they work as they should as well as prevent poisoning accidents. Be sure to store your medications on a high shelf away from the reach and sight of toddlers and teenagers. Check the expiration date on your medicine. DO NOT KEEP old or unused medicines around.

When should you consider disposing of medicines?

Follow these guidelines to know when to dispose of a medicine.

  1. Your health condition has improved and your health care provider has advised you to discontinue using it.
  2. You have excess medicine than what you actually need.
  3. Your prescription has been changed by your health care provider but you still have some of the previous medicine left.
  4. You have medicines of someone who has expired or is no longer in a condition to use them.
  5. Your medicine is past its date of expiration.

The FDA recommends putting drugs in a plastic bag with an undesirable substance, such as cat litter or coffee grounds, and throwing them in the garbage, which is then taken to a regulated disposal site. Most unused medicines should not be washed down the sink or toilet.

Dr. M.G. Kartheeka, MBBS, MD

How to Dispose of Medicines at Home?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration suggests the following rules to dispose of medications:

Disposing medicines in the household trash:

Prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs in pills, liquids, drops, patches, creams and inhalers can be thrown into the household trash.

Follow these steps:

  1. The drugs should be removed from their original containers and mixed with something undesirable, such as used coffee grounds or dirt, thus making the medicine less appealing to children and pets as well as unrecognizable to someone looking through the trash for drugs.
  2. This mixture should be then put into something that can be closed (are-sealable zipper storage bag, empty can or other containers) to prevent the drug from leaking or spilling out.
  3. Throw the container in the garbage.

Disposing of Inhaler Products

Inhalers and aerosol products could be dangerous if punctured or thrown into a fire or incinerator. These should be destroyed following local regulations and laws. You may contact your trash and recycling facility.

Flushing medicines:

 Flushing could potentially harm the environment but because some medicines could be especially harmful to others, they have specific directions to immediately flush them down the sink or toilet when they are no longer needed.

Disposing of Fentanyl Patches

Some prescription drugs like Fentanyl Patches deliver strong pain medicine through the skin. A lot of medicine remains, even after a patch is used. Such powerful narcotic pain medicines and other controlled substances should be flushed to reduce the danger of overdose from unintentional or illegal use.

Unopened, unused and out-of-date medicines should be returned to pharmacies or nearby hospitals for disposal, or they can then send to the manufacturers to dispose off as cytotoxic drug disposal protocols. The cardboard box that houses the blister packs can be recycled, as can any paper inserts.

Dr. Ashish Bajaj, M.B.B.S., M.D.

Harmful effects of expired medicines

Expired medical products can be less effective or risky due to a change in their chemical composition or a decrease in strength. Certain expired medications are at risk of bacterial growth and sub-potent antibiotics can fail to treat infections, leading to more serious illnesses and antibiotic resistance. Once the expiration date of medicine has passed, there is no guarantee that the medicine will be safe and effective. If your medicine has expired, do not use it.

According to the DEA, many people do not know how to properly clean out their medicine cabinets.   Failing to safely dispose of old medications, especially opioids, all too often leads to dangerous drugs ending up in the wrong hands. The CDC reports that over 60,000 young children end up in emergency rooms each year because they got hold of medicines while an adult was not looking.

Finally, expired medicines are also not just a risk to the person they were prescribed for and can injure children and pets if taken by mistake. For all these reasons, proper disposal of expired medication is essential.

Disclaimer: The above information has been prepared by a qualified medical professional and may not represent the practices followed universally. The suggestions listed in this article constitute relatively common advice given to patients and since every patient is different, you are advised to consult your physician, if in doubt, before acting upon this information. Lupin Limited has only facilitated the distribution of this information to you in the interest of patient education and welfare.


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