Disposing of Those Old Medications in Your Cabinet Could Save Your Life

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Health Care

Photo of prescription bottles opened and pills spilled on a counter.By George L. Askew, MD, FAAP, Chief Medical Officer, and Hima Patel, Health Policy Intern

You felt a jabbing pain in the back of your mouth, went to the dentist, and had two unruly wisdom teeth removed three months ago. Now, in the back corner of your medicine cabinet, two leftover pills of Vicodin remain, long forgotten. Last night, your new, rambunctious Labrador puppy managed not only to scratch the leather couch, but also to open the lower cabinet and knock over all of the bottles, bandages and, of course, your medications, leaving a mess of orange bottles, brightly colored pills and Mickey Mouse Band-Aids strewn all over the kitchen floor. Luckily, the little guy had a short attention span, and discovered a new toy to play with- the ugly vase your aunt gave you for a birthday years ago.

You lucked out- no harm came of the unused pills that you had stuck in the back corner of your cabinet - but many are not so lucky. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 87 deaths a day are attributed to unintentional poisoning, 91 percent of which are overdoses involving prescription drugs. Unused or expired drugs present a serious threat to the lives of all of your loved ones. Children and pets can easily ingest unused medication without knowing the potentially harmful effects. Drug abuse and misuse, whether intentional or unintentional, can also lead to extended emergency care stays and fatal overdoses.

To safely rid yourself and your family of medications that you no longer need, we urge you to participate in the “National Take-Back Initiative” on Saturday, April 26. During the initiative, you can turn in your unwanted prescription medications for safe and proper disposal. Returned medications are taken to a facility and burned, removing the prescription medications completely from circulation. You can contact your city or county’s trash and recycling services to find drug take-back programs close to your home. The U.S. Department of Justice and Drug Enforcement Administration has also provided a database where you can search for a participating “National Take-Back Initiative” location near your home by zip code.

While a drug take-back program provides the safest, most efficient means to dispose of unneeded medications, the Food and Drug Administration does provide guidance on some alternatives for drug removal. When discarding medications, be sure to follow any disposal guidelines on the prescription labeling. Do not flush medications unless specifically instructed to do so by the labeling. Some medications can be crushed and mixed with unsavory substances (such as coffee grounds or kitty litter) and placed in a sealed container (like a locking plastic bag) to prevent pets, children and others who may come across the medications from coming into contact with them. Scratch out any personal information on medicine containers before throwing them away to protect your identity and privacy of medical information. When in doubt about the disposal of any prescriptions, talk to your pharmacist to learn about the safest means to discard the medication.