By Natasha Persaud

Medicine Cabinet Image - Masterfile

While you’re spring cleaning your home, take some time to go through your medicine cabinet. Here's why:

  • Your medications could have expired.
  • Certain drugs may have lost their potency.
  • You may have old prescription medications that are no longer useful—or safe.
  • You want to avoid accidental ingestion by young children and pets.
  • You want to prevent potential drug abuse.

Prescription drug abuse is a significant problem in the United States. According to a report from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, more teens abuse prescription medications than any illegal drug. Teens are also abusing over-the-counter cough and cold remedies to get high. Unfortunately, the majority of young people who abuse prescription drugs are getting them easily and for free, primarily from friends and relatives. "An accessible medicine cabinet is an easy target," says Ray Bullman, executive vice president of the National Council on Patient Information."

Follow this handy guide to properly dispose of your medication:

Clean Out Your Medicine Cabinet

Start by checking the expiration dates on all your prescription and over-the-counter medications as well as dietary supplements. "You don’t want to take any chances with a medicine or supplement that no longer works the way it’s supposed to," Bullman says.

Also, pay attention to other signs that a pill is past its prime: it’s discolored, dried out, crumbling or has an unusual odor. Medications can lose their potency due to exposure to light, air or humidity, the passage of time or improper storage. “When in doubt, throw it out.”

Finally, look for leftover antibiotics and other prescription medications from a previous illness or condition. These should be discarded because you should never attempt to treat yourself or anyone else with a prescription medicine.

“Although your symptoms might seem similar to an illness you had before, the cause could be different or the medicine may not be the right one to use this time around,” says Bullman. “In addition, a drug that works for you could be dangerous for someone else.” Always consult your doctor before taking prescription medication.

Where to Dispose of Medications

Proper medication disposal is important. You don't want to flush medications that should be thrown in the trash, and vice versa. Always refer to the printed material accompanying your medication for specific instructions on disposal. Otherwise, here are some general tips:

Flush, Don’t Toss

According to the FDA in January 2012, flush the following drugs down the toilet:

  • Abstral tablets (fentanyl)
  • Actiq lozenges (fentanyl citrate)
  • Avinza capsules (morphine sulfate)
  • Daytrana transdermal patch (methylphenidate)
  • Demerol tablets and solution (meperidine hydrochloride)
  • Diastat/Diastat AcuDial rectal gel (diazepam)
  • Dilaudid tablets and liquid (hydromorphone hydrochloride)
  • Dolophine hydrochloride tablets (methadone hydrochloride)
  • Duragesic patch (fentanyl)
  • Embeda capsules (morphine sulfate; naltrexone hydrochloride)
  • Exalgo tablets (hydromorphone hydrochloride)
  • Fentora tablets (fentanyl citrate)
  • Kadian capsules (morphine sulfate)
  • Methadone hydrochloride solution (methadone hydrochloride)
  • Methadose tablets (methadone hydrochloride)
  • Morphine Sulfate tablets and solution (morphine sulfate)
  • MS Contin tablets (morphine sulfate)
  • Nucynta ER tablets (tapentadol)
  • Onsolis soluble film (fentanyl citrate)
  • Opana and Opana ER tablets (oxymorphone hydrochloride)
  • Oramorph SR tablets (morphine sulfate)
  • Oxecta tablets (oxycodone hydrochloride)
  • Oxycodone hydrochloride capsules and solution (oxycodone hydrochloride)
  • OxyContin tablets (oxycodone hydrochloride)
  • Percocet tablets (oxycodone hydrochloride and acetaminophen)
  • Percodan tablets (aspirin and oxycodone hydrochloride)
  • Xyrem solution (sodium oxybate)

There is some concern that medications that are flushed could enter rivers and streams. "When a drug contains instructions to flush it down the toilet, it's because the FDA, working with the manufacturer, has determined this method to be the most appropriate route of disposal that presents the least risk to safety," says Bullman. Unless indicated on the bottle, drug insert or packaging, don’t flush medications down the toilet.

Safe Drug Disposal

Some communities host drug take-back programs or household hazardous waste collection events. Call your city or county government's household trash and recycling service (see the blue pages in your phone book) to see if a take-back program is available in your community.

To dispose of asthma inhalers, review the insert that comes with the product. Some inhalers may be thrown in the trash, while others may be considered hazardous waste and require special handling. Generally, you should avoid puncturing inhalers or throwing them into a fire or incinerator. If you have questions about safe disposal, contact your local trash and recycling facility and pharmacist.

How to Trash Medication

At home, follow these steps to prevent a pet or another person from ingesting medication you discard.

  1. Step 1: Empty pills from their original containers.
  2. Step 2: Put pills in one or more plastic, re-sealable bags or a plastic container with a lid.
  3. Step 3: Add a bit of water to each container.
  4. Step 4: Throw in other undesirable trash, such as coffee grounds or kitty litter.
  5. Step 5: Seal the containers to prevent leakages and put them in the trash for garbage collection.
  6. Step 6: Before you toss the empty bottles and boxes, scratch out all identifying information on the prescription label to make it unreadable and protect your privacy.

Liquid medications, such as cough syrup that has expired, should be disposed of in the same way. Pour the liquid into a sealable plastic bag or container along with pills and other trash. Don’t pour these liquids down the drain.

How to Store Medications You Want to Keep

Medications Image - Masterfile

Once you’ve identified the medicines you want to keep, find a safe place to stow them. “You’ll want to store your medicine in an area that is convenient, but is also cool and dry—such as a cabinet or drawer—since heat and humidity can damage medicines," says Bullman. "A cabinet in the bathroom is not actually a good place to keep your medicines."

It is a good idea to keep medications in a locked container, so they’re safe from children and theft. 

Smart Medication Tips Everyone Should Use

  • Keep medications in their original packaging along with their inserts, since they contain important information on drug interactions, side effects, drug disposal and expiration.
  • If there is cotton in the pill bottle when you first open it, remove it and throw it away. The cotton can absorb moisture and affect the medicine that is inside.
  • Look for the active ingredient on each of the over-the-counter and prescription medications you or a loved one are taking. Over-the-counter pain relievers and cold medications, for example, may each contain acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen sodium or aspirin. The FDA has recently asked drug manufacturers to add additional warnings to over-the-counter products containing acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs due to the risk of bleeding or liver damage with these products.
  • To avoid medication mix-ups, take your medications in a well-lit room and wear your reading glasses.
  • Ideally, you want to keep a 30-day supply of prescription and over-the-counter medications your family takes on a regular basis.
  • Keep your medicines separate from those of your spouse and other family members, such as on a different shelf. That way, you won’t take the wrong ones by mistake.
  • Keep an up-to-date medicine list for each member of your family that includes: medications that person takes regularly and the dosages, allergies to medications and foods, chronic health conditions, doctors' names, and nearby hospitals. “Store the list in a re-sealable plastic bag in your medicine cabinet, so it’s easy to grab in an emergency,” says Bullman. “You may also want to keep copies in your wallet and with relatives or friends who live in another part of the country.”
  • Keep medication out of reach of children and pets. Avoid putting them on the kitchen table or a nightstand.
  • Lock up any controlled substances that have been prescribed for you. These include medicines such as hydromorphone (Dilaudid), oxycodone (OxyContin and Percocet), hydrocodone (Vicodin), and alprazolam (Xanax).

By cleaning out your medicine cabinet and taking these simple precautions, you help keep yourself, your children, your pets and your neighbors out of harm's way.

Additional Source:

FDA. Disposal of Unused Medicines: What You Should Know. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/drugs/resourcesforyou/consumers/buyingusingmedicinesafely/ensuringsafeuseofmedicine/safedisposalofmedicine/ucm186187.htm#MEDICINES. Accessed on March 1, 2012.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at Healthcommunities.com

Published: 01 Apr 2009

Last Modified: 28 Jan 2015