Last Updated on
We all have some medication leftovers from previous seasons; we buy some of them with the purpose to treat colds, different illnesses, as sleep aids, while we buy others for prevention, for example, when we travel. But, a lot of those medications stays unused, their expiration dates pass by, and they are still in our bathroom lockers, kitchen drawers, and bedtime tables. Somehow a lot of people are not sure what to do with their old medications, is it safe to throw them out, flush them, burn them, destroy them somehow? We are going to try and get to the bottom of this topic, and solve all of your dilemmas about the disposal of old drugs.
Once your sleep pills are no longer in use, or they expired, the best option is to dispose of them promptly and remove from your house, by doing so you reduce the chances that someone from your household accidentally takes or even intentionally tries to misuse them. There are three primary ways, which we recommend to dispose of old drugs:
- Medicine take-back
- Disposal in the trash
- Flushing them in the toilet
Sleep Medication Disposal
With the increased number of people suffering from sleep disorders, the industry of sleep aids has been in an expansion, and they are now widely used in therapies of sleep disturbances. People take them to fall asleep more naturally, but there are also some pills which help them stay awake, it all depends on the disorder. It is crucial not to take sleeping pills on your own before consulting with the doctor, because in some cases simple behavioral changes may do the job without the need for pills, and also most pills come with some side effects which include headaches, nausea, memory impairment, or allergic reactions. When it comes to the disposal of sleep medicine, you should follow the instructions from the container, but if nothing specified was written about it, then follow some general rules of disposal, which we will explain thoroughly in this post.
Most people in the US deal with insomnia; hence, many sleep aids are dedicated to helping them fall asleep easier. But the pills should never be your first option, try with some lifestyle changes and healthier sleep routine first, or if that is not possible, which is the case with shift workers, for example, then opt for pills. Some of the often prescribed ones include:
- Melatonin supplements are the most effective solution for people with a disorder of circadian rhythm, and those going through jet lag, struggling with shift work or falling asleep. Melatonin is a hormone, which our brain produces once it gets dark outside, and it regulates our sleep-wake cycle by letting us know when it is bedtime. These supplements can be bought without the prescription and should be taken right before the desired bedtime.
- Sedating antihistamines will also help you fall asleep faster, but they are more recommended for temporary use, you cannot get addicted to them, but if you use them regularly, their effect will start to fade because our body tends to get used to them quickly.
- Valerian plant root is a sleep aid known from the ancient times, even the Greeks and Romans left notes about its sleep-enhancing features. Today, it comes in pills, and it is available without a prescription.
- Hypnotics are more “serious” type of sleep aid, and they are not available without the prescription. They can be prescribed for various sleep disorders, but mostly for chronic insomnia, RLS, or periodic limb movement disorder.
Now let’s take a closer look how to dispose of different types of sleep drugs.
Medicine Take-Back Options
Take-back is the most preferred and recommended way to get rid of drugs that are no longer in use, and there are two ways to do that, either on periodic events or at the permanent collection sites.
- Periodic events. The US Drug Enforcement Administration occasionally organizes events, such as National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, when permanent sites are held all around the community for people to bring their old drugs. It stands for the vast majority of medications, but here we would like to mention that there is a small group of medicines which are not meant to be taken back; instead, they need to be flushed down the toilet when you stop using them. Instructions on how to do it are present on or within the packaging. People can contact their local waste management to inform about upcoming events during which they can return unused medications.
- Permanent collection sites. If a registered DEA collector exists in your community, you can take your meds to them anytime. Such places are usually pharmacies, either retail ones or the ones in hospitals and clinics, as well as some law enforcement facilities. At some places, collection receptacles or mail back programs are also available to help people safely dispose of their stuff.
Disposal in the Trash
If none of the permanent sites is near your house, or you have not heard about any upcoming medication take-back events, and your drugs are not meant to be flushed, then you can dispose of them in your trash can. Here is a step by step guide on how to do it safely.
- If you have any tablets or capsules do not crush them. Instead, mix them all together with substances such as dirt, cat litter, or used coffee grounds.
- This mixture should be put in a sealed plastic bag and thrown in a trash bin.
- Take all bottles and packages and check for any personal information about you, and delete them immediately, after that you can dispose of the container.
Flushing Medication Down the Toilet
A very small number of drugs comes with an instruction to be immediately flushed once you no longer need them, that is because they are potentially dangerous. A lot of people think about flushing as the easiest and right way to get rid of old medications, but that is not right, and drugs should not be flushed except in these rare cases.
The medication recommended for flushing are extremely dangerous if misused, even fatal with just one dose if another person uses them.
Otherwise, there is no need to promptly flush your medications since the number of temporary and permanent collecting sites is rising all over the country. So if none of them is near you at the moment, place your medications in some safe place, unreachable to kids or pets, because they can easily replace them for sweets and treats.
There are even some drugs which represent a particular risk when they are not disposed of by instructions, one example of it is people who carry fentanyl patches, their used patches need to be immediately flushed after being removed. This way, you are preventing any unpleasant situation, and keeping others safe from accidentally touching or ingesting it.
Most of the medicine comes with instruction for disposal, and you should blindly follow these instructions each time. If it does not come with instructions, first check if there are any permanent disposal sites, or temporary ones upcoming in the near future. If not, then as your last option you need to check is your drug on the list of medicine that is recommended for flushing.
Influence of Flushing Medicine on the Environment
There are good reasons why flushing should always be your last option, and even though it seems like the easiest thing to do, you should not practice it like it is a regular thing. Flushing many different and potential harmful medicine opened up a safety question, how safe it is for the environment and us to do it that way? FDA also recognized this problem, especially with the recommendation that some medication can be flushed if currently, other disposal options are not available to the user. There were concerns about the impact of flushed medicine on the environment, contamination of the soil, and even drinking water, so in order to make things more clear and address these concerns, FDA published a paper on it. In that paper, the impact of 15 different medicine on human health and environment was evaluated, and FDA concluded that their influence is neglectable and that it does not represent high risk; however, many agree that additional data is needed to confirm these statements for some of the listed medication.
FDA strongly believes that commonly known risk of complications, fatal consequences, and any other type of harm coming from accidental or intentional misuse of medicine is much higher than any risk for humans coming from flushed drugs.
On the FDA official web page, you can find a full list of drugs which they recommend flushing when none of the take-back options is available.
Recommendations for Safe Removal of Unused Drugs
The medicine should always be responsibly disposed of the house, and almost all of them can be disposed of by one of the take-back programs. When none of these is available in your surroundings, you can throw them in the trash in a way we described above, or as your last option, flush them down the toilet.
Authorized collectors are by far the safest way to do this, and now when some pharmacies offer the option to mail-back your old medicine, there is no need to risk with throwing it in trash cans or flushing it.
To target a disposal site near your household you should visit DEA’s official webpage, or contact them through the phone to get information about authorized collectors near you.
If you opt to throw them in the trash, do not forget to follow our steps for safe disposal, and erase all personal data from labels. A few prescription drugs contain substances which can be fatal if someone who is not the prescribed patient takes them, and they should not, in any case, be thrown in a trash can because some animals may reach it. The best is to opt for one of the medicine take-back options if available.
Accidental Exposure to Medicine
With medicines you never know what could happen if a person who is not meant to use them accidentally takes them, hence it is essential to keep the drugs we are using, and the ones we are not far away from kids and pets because they are the most vulnerable.
Unfortunately, accidental exposure to drugs in households is the reason for many pediatric poisonings in the US. Every year, around 60,000 visits to the emergency centers and 450,000 emergency calls to poison centers happen because children younger than six years ingested some medication without supervision. These numbers are alarming and should represent a wake-up call to many parents who are not paying enough attention to what their child is doing. Pill bottles are no rattles, and kids should not play with medicines or be exposed to them. What is even more concerning is the fact that more than two-thirds of emergency center visits due to the accidental pediatric exposure to medication are with children that are only 1 or 2 years old. Around 20% of all cases require hospitalization.
Keeping the medications that are expired, or that you don’t need to use anymore is potentially dangerous and irresponsible because it creates health risks for all members of the household. Some containers are child-resistant, but it doesn’t guarantee that a child will not find a way to take them. One study focused on children who were exposed to medications of their grandparents, and it showed that in 45% of cases, medicine was previously stored adequately in child-resistant containers.
Many of these and similar cases were published, and you can find them online and read to inform how quickly things can escalate from zero to nothing with children.
Disposal of OTC and Diet Supplements
These should be disposed of in the same way as other medication, so regardless if you have some unused dietary supplements or over the counter drugs. Take-back option is, again, the safest and strongly recommended, but if that is not an option, you should follow the guidelines for safe disposal of medication in the trash can.
How Not to Dispose Of Your Old Medicine
As a responsible member of society, you do not want to do anything that could harm your loved ones or anyone else. That is why medication should be handled carefully, while we use them, and even more after, when we no longer need them and forget that they are still in some corner of our drawer or locker.
We mentioned that if you decide to throw your medical waste in the trash can, you should mix it with something else. We suggested using some dirt, but we need to mention that in no case, you should combine your medicine with food. Old bread, meal leftovers, or anything edible, no matter how old it is, it is still food, and there is a risk that some stray dogs or homeless people may find it and try to eat it.
If you are throwing pills, you need to take them out of the container and scatter them in dirt or over the trash. You should never throw pills in bottles, but what is even worse than that is to leave your prescription on the bottle. First, you are jeopardizing your privacy because anyone who goes through your trash can know what type of medicine you use, and why, but also this increases the risk of misuse and can be harmful to anyone who is not the prescribed person. Always scratch or paint over your personal information, and make sure that they are not readable.
Also, never borrow your prescribed drugs or sleeping aids to your friends or family members, even if it seems that you are suffering from the same condition. Only a doctor can determine therapies and medication dosages based on his examinations; hence, it can be dangerous to assume such things and play with someone’s health. Another thing is the fact that controlled drug prescription system exists for a good reason. What is right for you does not necessarily have to be suitable for someone else with the same condition, in contrast, it can have a negative impact if a person is allergic to some substances or has some other situation which can hinder the way medications work. The best and safest way is to encourage your close ones to pay a visit to an expert and get their therapy with prescribed medications.
Can Expired or Unused Drugs be Donated?
This is an arguable and somewhat controversial question, and in reality, the situation differs from one state to another. For most states, you can check online if the pharmaceutical donation or some types of reuse programs exist in your country. However, most state programs would not accept back some controlled substances.