Resources for Family Caregivers of Older Adults
Disposing of Seniors’ Expired or Unneeded Medications Properly

Disposing of Seniors’ Expired or Unneeded Medications Properly

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Many seniors take numerous medications that their doctors prescribed over time. Some seniors have changing medical conditions, which may mean that their medications may be changed often as a result, even before the existing supply is exhausted.

What that leaves is many expired or unneeded prescription drugs with no place to go but to clutter up the medicine cabinet. Too many pills can lead to danger from incorrect dosing, taking expired pills which are no longer effective or creating situations in which dangerous medication can find its way into the curious hands of children.

So what do we do with all those bottles of pills that our senior loved ones no longer need to have around?

Disposal of Unwanted or Out of Date Prescription Drugs

  1. Do not flush them down the toilet (with limited exceptions)! This is an old practice that many worry is harmful to our water supply. Some drugs, such as powerful narcotics or controlled substances, should still be flushed in order to prevent accident overdose, but not many. If it can be flushed, the package insert will tell you it is acceptable, which is the case for a fentanyl patch (as an example) because it continues to contain medication after removal and could be harmful if accidentally found in the trash.
  2. Find a drug “take back” event in your area and let them dispose of any drugs you no longer need. If you call your city’s recycling program or trash department, they can tell you if one is planned soon. You can also find information about the National Prescription Drug Take Back Day.
  3. Most drugs can be placed in the household trash with the proper handling, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Take drugs out of their original containers and mix them with an undesirable substance, such as used coffee grounds or kitty litter. Put them in a sealable bag, empty can, or other container to prevent the medication from leaking or breaking out of a garbage bag. This way it will be less likely to be accidentally eaten by pets, animals or desirable to someone seeking drugs.
  4. Some drugs come with literature on ways to properly dispose of that particular drug and you should follow that when available.
  5. Always scratch out personal information on the bottles before discarding them or remove the label and then shred it in order to protect your senior’s private health information.
  6. Inhalers can also contain unused medicine and should be discarded per the package. Some types can be thrown in the household trash but others need to be treated as hazardous waste and handled specially. Do not puncture the canisters or throw them in the fire.
  7. Don’t share your prescription drugs or bottles with other people.
  8. If you have questions about a particular drug disposal, ask your pharmacist.

Over-the-Counter Drug Disposal

The FDA recommends similar disposal for expired or unwanted drugs that are available over-the-counter (OTC) as for prescription drugs. Their recommendations are designed to reduce the risk of injury or misuse of unwanted drugs.

Disposing of unwanted or expired prescription and over-the-counter drugs is an important step for us all. It is also important for the safety of your senior and any children you have in your home. A little planning can improve the safety of those in your care.

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