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Getting Rid of Old Medications

You've probably heard that you're not supposed to pour old medications down the toilet or drain. That's because drugs can get into the water supply and cause problems for people and wildlife.

But you can't just toss medicines or unused prescriptions in the trash either. You don't want medications — and your private health information — to fall into the wrong hands.

Destroying old medications (like expired over-the-counter medicines or unused prescriptions) and then putting them in the trash is the way to go.

Here's how:

  • Dump the medicine out of its container into a sealable plastic bag. You don't want to throw away medications in their containers because there's a risk that people looking for drugs, as well as kids or pets, might find them. You can mix different kinds of medicines in the same bag. Just be sure to use a plastic bag that can be tightly sealed, like a zipper lock sandwich bag.
  • Destroy the medications. Add a small amount of water to the bag to dissolve any pills or capsules. Then, add something that's not food, like kitty litter, shredded paper, sawdust, coffee grounds, or dirt. That way, if the medication mix falls into the hands (or paws!) of children or animals they won't be able to eat it.
  • Seal up the bag and throw it away in the regular trash.
  • Before you throw away prescription containers, remove the labels. After you've disposed of the medication following the instructions above, throw the medicine container in the trash. But before you do that, remove the label and destroy it. This helps you protect your medical information and keep it private. You don't want your name, address, and other personal information showing up next to the name of the drug you are taking. If you can't remove the label, take a marker and black out any personal information.

A few prescription medications need to be disposed of immediately after they are no longer needed. These should still be flushed down the toilet. If your prescription is one of these, the label or sticker on the container should say so.

Ask your pharmacist about National Prescription Take-Back Day. This program lets you bring unused medications to a place where they can be disposed of safely.

Reviewed by: Kate M. Cronan, MD
Date reviewed: March 2011