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How to Safely Dispose of Your Old Medications

Medically reviewed by Leigh Ann Anderson, PharmD. Last updated on Oct 17, 2019.

National Prescription Drug Take Back Day

On Saturday, October 26, 2019 - 10AM to 2PM local time, communities will team up with law enforcement to host the next National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day.

  • During Take-Back Days each spring and fall collection sites are set up in local cities throughout our nation for safe disposal of prescription drugs you have at home, including opioids.
  • You can call the Drug Enforcement Agency's (DEA's) Office of Diversion Control’s Registration Call Center at 1-800-882-9539 or check the DEA's website for authorized collection sites in your area.
  • Consumers may also continue to utilize the guidelines Disposal of Unused Medicines: What You Should Know as posted by the FDA if they are not able to attend a scheduled Take-Back Day.
  • The disposal service is free and anonymous for consumers, with no questions asked. The website will be continuously updated with new take-back locations.

What is National Prescription Drug Take Back Day?

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) hosts a no-questions asked National Prescription Drug Take-Back event twice per year. On this day, temporary collection sites are set up in local cities throughout the nation for safe disposal of prescription drugs, including opioids.

Opioid abuse is at epidemic levels in the U.S., and remains a top public health concern. Consumers should dispose of expired, unwanted, or unused medicines as quickly as possible to help reduce accidental or intentional overdoses or illegal abuse. The DEA’s “Take-Back” initiative is one of several strategies to reduce prescription drug abuse and diversion in the nation.

DEA began hosting National Prescription Drug Take-Back events in 2010. At the last Take-Back Day in April 2019 over 6,250 sites across the nation collected unwanted or expired medications totaling 937,443 pounds (468.72 tons). The total amount of prescription drugs collected by DEA since the fall of 2010 is 11,816,393 lbs. (5,908.2 tons).

What Items Are Not Accepted at Take Back Events?

Keep in mind that these items generally are not accepted at the drop box. Check with the collector ahead of time to determine what items are specifically not accepted. 

  • Needles or other sharps
  • Asthma inhalers
  • Mercury thermometers
  • Iodine-containing medications
  • Illicit drugs or substances (including marijuana which is still a schedule 1 drug under federal law), and any prescription medications obtained illegally.

Can I Throw Medicine in the Trash?

With certain precautions, most, BUT NOT ALL, medications can be thrown in the trash. These include prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs in pills, liquids, drops, patches, creams, and inhalers. Look at the package insert of your medication to see if special instructions exist for disposal.

However, some medicines should be disposed of by flushing down the toilet (when take-back options are not readily available) as they can be very dangerous and even fatal. Since these medicines may be especially harmful to a child, pet, or anyone else if taken accidentally, it is important to store them safely and securely until disposal if they are not immediately flushed.

If no DEA-authorized collection sites (pharmacy, hospital, or law enforcement location) are available, and no Take Back Days are scheduled in your area, you can follow these steps to dispose of most medicines in the household trash:

  1. Mix medicines with an unpalatable substance such as dirt, used coffee grounds, or kitty litter. Take them out of their original container first. Do not crush tablets or capsules before mixing.
  2. Place the mixture in a container (sealed plastic bag or empty can) to prevent the drug from leaking into the garbage.
  3. Throw the container in the trash.
  4. When disposing of empty prescription bottles or packages, be sure to mark out identifying personal information to make it unreadable.

As noted, some medications should be flushed down the toilet when take-back options are not accessible because even one accidental dose could be fatal. These medications may be especially harmful -- or fatal -- to children and pets. Deaths have been reported in toddlers.

  • One example is fentanyl (Duragesic) patch, a powerful narcotic pain medication. Instead of placing used or unwanted fentanyl patches in the trash where they could be accidentally ingested, patients should dispose of them by flushing down the toilet as described in the patient leaflet.
  • FDA recommends disposing of used fentanyl patches immediately after taking them off of the skin. Fold the patch in half so that the sticky sides meet, and then flush it down the toilet.
  • Used or unneeded fentanyl patches should NOT be placed in the household trash where children or pets can find them. You can read more about disposing of fentanyl patches in the product Medication Guide.
  • You can access the FDA list of medications that should be flushed down the toilet when take-back options are not available at this link.

Be sure to read your prescription information that comes with any medication from the pharmacy. Many medications have specific directions for disposal of unwanted or expired medications explained in the patient leaflet. Ask your pharmacist for specific directions if you aren't sure.

Other options for unused medications include mail-back programs and authorized permanent collection sites ("drop-boxes") found in pharmacies, hospitals, or law enforcement facilities.

Points for Safe Drug Disposal

  • Inhalers and aerosol products can be dangerous if punctured or thrown into a fire or incinerator. Read the handling instructions on your inhaler. As recommended by the FDA, contact your local trash and recycling facility to confirm local laws about disposal of inhalers and aerosols.
  • Residents of assisted living communities and skilled nursing facilities and their family members should check with their community health care management team to learn the best way to dispose of used or unneeded medicines. Learn more here.
  • Protect your identity, too. Before you throw away the medication container or bottle, fully mark out any personal information such as your name, address, and prescription number to protect your privacy. Do not place prescription bottles with personal information in collection receptacles or mail-back packages.

Why Should I Be Concerned About Safe Disposal of Medicines?

Prescription medications play an important role in the health of millions of Americans. However, expired medications or unused drugs often stay in the back of cabinets for months or even years. These expired drugs can pose significant health hazards to toddlers, teens, and even pets who may inadvertently consume these medications. Some medications are so potent that even one dose could be fatal if accidentally ingested or even touched.

There are other important safety issues:

  • Misuse of prescription narcotic drugs (opioids) is a major public health concern. In fact, over 130 people die each day from opioid (narcotic) overdoses, according to the CDC.
  • In 2017, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids (prescription opioids, heroin, illicit fentanyl) were 6 times high than the number of deaths seen in 1999.
  • A U.S. government review shows that more than half of all people who first misuse prescription drugs get them from their friends, relatives or simply take them without asking.

A 2018 report found that the number of children hospitalized for opioid poisoning increased by 3-fold between 1997 and 2012, and the largest overall increase was among toddlers and preschoolers, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. These statistics magnify the need for proper disposal of unused or expired prescription medications from the home to help prevent misuse -- or accidental overdose -- of dangerous drugs.

What Happens to My Medicine After I Dispose of Them at a Prescription Take-Back Day?

The most common method of rendering pharmaceutical controlled substances unusable and non-retrievable is by incineration.

Does Flushing Medications Down the Toilet Pose a Risk to the Environment?

FDA has stated that disposal of these select few medicines by flushing down the toilet would only contribute to a small fraction of the total amount of medicine found in surface and drinking water. FDA environmental authorities claim most medicines in water are a result of elimination via the body from urine or feces. The FDA and EPA state there has been no indication of environmental effects due to flushing medications.

FDA also states that based on available data, the risk to humans from accidental exposure to these potent medications far outweighs the environmental risk.

What Is Being Done to Address the Opioid Epidemic?

Two federal agencies have proposed measures to try to rein in prescription painkiller overprescribing.

  • A guideline published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) -- Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain -- and new boxed warning label changes from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) highlight the need to educate health care professionals to address overprescribing and safe discontinuation of opioids.
  • The U.S. government has allotted billions of dollars in the federal budget towards the expanding opioid crisis, including for treatment.

Additional strategies include:

  • Education of health care providers, patients, parents and youth.
  • Establishing prescription drug monitoring programs in all 50 states.
  • Increased enforcement to address illicit methods of prescription drug diversion.

Slideshow: Chronic Pain Management: A Healthcare Professional's Guide

The DEA announced mandates to lower the production of powerful prescription opioids that are fueling the epidemic of addiction, overdose, and fatalities. 

Abuse-deterrent formulations have been developed, too. However, it's important to remember that the most common way that drugs are abused — simply by swallowing a handful of them — can’t be stopped with abuse-deterrent technology.

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.