8 reasons to toss unused or expired medication


Have you been hoarding leftover medications that are expired or past their prescription date?

Time to clear out that medicine cabinet. Disposing of old medications quickly and safely might be more important than you think.

The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Outpatient Pharmacy now offers a place to do this responsibly. Available beginning Wednesday, Oct. 10, a receptacle in the pharmacy allows anyone to deposit schedule II-IV controlled substances and non-controlled medications that have expired or are no longer wanted.

The pharmacy is located on the conference level of the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute.

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) also offers periodic Drug Take Back Days at sites around the country throughout the year. For these events, the DEA partners locally with law enforcement, public health agencies, pharmacies and waste-management facilities to organize these free events.

At all designated drop-off sites, officials collect prescription and over-the-counter medicine anonymously – no questions asked. Then they dispose of the drugs through methods recommended by the DEA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

To learn more about the Ohio State Outpatient Pharmacy’s drug take back receptacle and the medications you can deposit there, see our FAQ.

Here’s why anyone with old medications should take advantage of the opportunity to get rid of old or unwanted medication:

1. It helps prevent the spread of opiate addiction

Drug take backs are a critical piece to fighting the opiate epidemic in the United States, says Robert Weber, PharmD, administrator of Pharmaceutical Services at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Opioids, a class of drugs that includes some prescription painkillers, are the primary driver for drug overdose deaths in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the numbers are climbing – between 1999 and 2015, the number of opioid overdoses quadrupled.

In 2015, opioids were involved in the deaths of more than 33,000 Americans.

“Drug take backs help remove unnecessary stocks of opioids that could be stolen, sold or used in any other way beyond their intended purpose,” Weber says.

Even if the medication is prescribed to you, you shouldn’t take leftover pills past the time period that your doctor prescribed them.

Opiates are so dangerously addictive, Weber says, that even misusing a 10-day supply for yourself could leave you addicted.

2. Some medications become dangerous as they age

“Medications kept longer than a year in the bottle may become damaged,” Weber says. “Some, like the antibiotic tetracycline, can be dangerous for you to take if they break down and disintegrate.”

3. Taking that medicine might be illegal

It’s against the law to take a prescription drug that wasn’t prescribed to you or to take a prescription drug outside of its intended use.

4. That medication may no longer work for you

It may have been the right medicine for you when it was prescribed, but it might not be the best choice later, depending on other health factors.

Medication also can become less potent over time – even if it’s less than a year old – so the dosage may be off.

5. You shouldn’t self-prescribe old medicine

Even if you’re a healthcare professional and may understand what’s wrong with you, you can’t perform an objective exam on yourself, Weber says.

You could miss an important medical condition by trying to self-diagnose.

6. Hanging on to old medicine can be confusing

If you're taking multiple medications, it can become difficult to keep track of what should and shouldn't be going into your pill box, says Lauren T. Southerland, MD, the director of or Geriatric Emergency Care at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

"I've seen many times where a prescription is changed, but because someone doesn't dispose of the prior medication, they end up continuing to take the old medication in addition to the new medication and suffer from medication interactions and side effects," she says.

"This is especially a concern for older adults, who are more likely to suffer dangerous side effects of medications, such as drops in blood pressure or feeling weak or dizzy."

7. Excess medication can make you a target for theft

Especially when it comes to pain medications, it's important to keep extra medication in a locked, safe place in your home and don't advertise that you take them. And when the medication or your prescription has expired, dispose of them appropriately.

"Opioid addiction can be so strong that even friends or family members may target someone else's supply, and that can put people in danger," Southerland says.

8. Drug Take Back Days benefit the environment

Throwing old drugs in the trash, dumping them in the sink or flushing them down the toilet could add drug residue to landfills and waterways, where it can harm plant and animal life.

The medications collected at drug take backs are dissolved into a special solution or destroyed in EPA-approved incinerators.

The FDA does make a few exceptions to the no-flushing guideline. Some medications, such as fentanyl and morphine, are considered dangerous enough that it’s better to flush them than to risk their misuse. A list of these medications is available at FDA.gov.

If you truly can’t reach an authorized drop-off location but need to dispose of medicine, follow the FDA’s guidelines for safe medication disposal at home. At-home methods aren’t ideal, but they may be worth it if you’re worried about someone misusing old medicine.

If you ever have questions about your medications, remember that you can always ask your pharmacist.

“Our pharmacists are available to help you make the best use of your medicines and advise you on the do’s and don’ts of medication storage,” Weber explains. “Our priority is keeping everybody safe.”

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