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How to Safely Store and Dispose of Medicines

Part of using medicines safely is knowing how to store them and how to get rid of them after they expire or are no longer needed.

How Should We Store Medicine?

Be as careful about storing medicines as you are about giving the correct dose. Read the medicine's instructions. Some drugs need to be refrigerated, but most should be stored in a cool, dry location away from direct sunlight.

Your bathroom's medicine cabinet is a poor choice for storing most medicines because of the humidity and moisture from the tub or shower. Instead, store medicines in their original containers in a dry, locked location that kids can't reach. Above-counter kitchen cabinets are great spots if they are away from the stove, sink, and hot appliances.

Child-resistant caps can be hard even for adults to open. But protect your kids by re-locking and recapping child-resistant bottles properly. Kids can sometimes open the cap, so it's important to lock away all medicines. If any visitors to your house have medicine in their bags, purses, or coat pockets, make sure they put those out of sight and out of reach.

If your child accidentally takes medicine, get help from the poison control center right away at 1-800-222-1222 or onlineKeep their number in your cellphone and post it where others can see it in your home.

How Can We Safely Dispose of Medicines?

The best way to dispose of unwanted medicines is through a medicine disposal site.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) periodically hosts National Prescription Drug Take-Back events. Temporary collection sites are set up in communities for safe disposal of prescription drugs. There are also permanent sites in many areas. Visit the DEA website to find a disposal site near you.

A few medicines are especially dangerous if taken inappropriately or accidentally, such as opioids. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends flushing these down the toilet as soon as they're not needed if no take-back option is available. Check the medicine label or the patient information leaflet that comes with the medicine for instructions on how to dispose of it. Also, the FDA has a list of medicines to be flushed when a take-back program is not available (called the "flush list").

If you can't flush a medicine or take it to a disposal site, keep these suggestions in mind:

  • When disposing of medicines, make sure they stay out of the reach of children and don't contaminate the environment.
  • Check the package for specific instructions on how to dispose of the medicine. Do not dispose of medicines in the toilet unless the package says it's OK.
  • Break down tablets or capsules and mix them with another substance, like used coffee grounds, dirt, shredded paper, or kitty litter. That way, kids and pets won't try to get to the medicine. Next, put the mixture in a bag or container and seal it closed, then toss it into a garbage can.
  • Return the medicine to a local pharmacy. Many pharmacies take back expired pharmaceuticals. Each pharmacy has a different policy, so contact yours to see if it will accept them.
  • Local household hazardous-waste collection facilities often take expired medicines. These are the places where antifreeze, oil, and used batteries are taken for proper disposal. Each facility has a different policy about unused medicine, so call first.
  • Take special care to dispose of unused pain medicines promptly to prevent the potential for theft/abuse. Check with your community about take-back programs to safely dispose of these medicines.
  • Sharps and needles can be placed in special sharps disposal containers, available from pharmacies or medical supply stores. Many communities have disposal programs for these, so check with your local health department or pharmacy. If you don’t have a sharps container, you can use a thick container like a laundry detergent container or a metal can (like a coffee can) where the lid has been carefully secured and no needle can poke through. Do not put these household containers with sharps in recycling.