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How to Dispose of Old Medications Properly – Don’t Just Flush Them Down the Toilet


If you’re like most people, you’ve probably got an entire cabinet or plastic bin full of old medications. They’ve either expired or you’re no longer required to take them. If you’re thinking about disposing of those medications, it will benefit you to read through this post to make sure that you are disposing of them properly.

Your first (and best) option would be through a community “take-back” program that allows you to clean out all of your old medications and have the organization dispose of them properly. These organizations have tons of experience with disposing of medications and can ensure that they are handled correctly and securely. 

If you have a medication that specifically states that you should flush immediately when the medication is no longer needed, do not ignore this instruction. These are usually medications that can be dangerous to others in the household if taken by mistake. If you aren’t sure if you have a medication that has immediate flushing instructions associated with it, you can find a list of them here.

Guidelines for Disposing of Medications:

  • If your prescription has specific instructions for disposal, follow them. Don’t just flush prescriptions down the toilet or sink unless instructed to do so.
  • Call your local law enforcement to find locations where you can take old or unused medications and have them disposed of in proper fashion. Most city and county governments have guidelines that they pass along to residents that explain the best way to dispose of medications and who can help with the process.
  • The DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) offers multiple solutions to disposing of unused medications. They can help you find authorized institutions that can dispose of medication properly and some communities even have “mail-back” locations where you can drop off unused prescriptions to ensure they are disposed of.

If your prescriptions have no specific disposal instruction and you cannot find a disposal service in your community, then the next step is to go to the trash with them. But, follow these guidelines when doing so:

  • Make sure that you remove them from the original container and even mix them with another substance you are throwing out (coffee grounds, dirt, etc.). This makes the drugs less desirable to someone who might come across them or people who dig through garbage looking for discarded medication.
  • Place the drug(s) in a sealed container to ensure they don’t break through the garbage bag.

Here are some other tips from Dr. Ilisa Bernstein, Pharm.D., J.D of the FDA:

  • Make sure to scratch/blackout any identifying information from the prescription label to ensure that you are protecting your identity and personal health information.
  • Doctors prescribe medications to specific patients for specific purposes, never give your prescriptions to a friend or family member.
  • If you have doubt about how to dispose of a certain medication, consult your pharmacist. They are a great resource.

Why must you be so careful?

Some drugs, such as narcotic pain relievers, have a danger associated with them. There could be a danger of overdose if someone else was to take them. These drugs are normally recommended to be flushed to ensure there are no over-dose or illegal abuse of the narcotic.

An example is a fentanyl patch. These patches are worn on the skin and provide an extremely powerful narcotic pain medication to the wearer. These patches have a flush instruction due to the fact that they can easily cause an overdose death to someone who put one on, even if it has already been worn.

Some people have environmental concerns after drug residues have been found in local lakes, streams, and even water supplies. “The main way drug residues enter water systems is by people taking medicines and then naturally passing them through their bodies,” says Raanan Bloom, Ph.D., an environmental assessment expert at FDA.

The FDA has a continuously updated list of drugs that should not be flushed down the toilet due to this and other concerns. You can view that list here.

If you or a family member suffer from asthma or COPD, you might have leftover inhalers laying around. Read the handling instructions for your specific inhalers. They could be dangerous if punctured or incinerated. You can also contact your local trash or recycling facility for proper disposal instructions for old inhalers.