April 25, 2024

Medication disposal: How — and why — to do it safely

illustration of an open medicine cabinet with a child reaching up toward it

If you’re doing any spring cleaning this year, remember to look in your medicine cabinets to weed out expired or unneeded medications. Hanging on to them is risky, since outdated medicines can lose their effectiveness or even harm you. And having used medication equipment (such as needles) around can hurt you and others. Fortunately, it’s simple to dispose of these items safely.

Improper disposal

You definitely do not want to dispose of unneeded or expired medications by pouring them down the drain, flushing them down the toilet, or tossing them into the trash without special preparation. That’s how chemicals wind up in soil, waterways, and groundwater. Used needles that are thrown out can poke holes in garbage bags, causing leaks and potentially hurting sanitation workers who pick up the garbage. Needles that are flushed down the toilet can get stuck in your home’s plumbing or in equipment at the local water treatment plant.

However, the FDA notes that some medications are so sought-after for misuse, and so potentially deadly, that if none of the methods of disposal in the accompanying article is possible for you, you should flush the drugs. Drugs on the FDA Flush List include those with opioids, such as any drug whose label contains the words “hydrocodone,” “buprenorphine,” “fentanyl,” or “oxycodone,” as well as certain non-opioids such as diazepam rectal gel, methylphenidate patches, and drugs with the words “sodium oxybate.” However, some communities don’t allow this practice. Contact your local health or sanitation department for more on medication disposal that meets all regulations.

As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles.

No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

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