How to Safely Dispose of Prescription Medications

Douglas Throckmorton, MD, of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, offers recommendations for how to take stock of what's in your medicine cabinet, and dispose of what's expired.

When was the last time you took stock of what’s in your medicine cabinet? Take some time to think about how you’re storing your medications and how to safely dispose of those medicines you’re no longer using.

Last year, we as Americans filled more than 4 billion prescriptions — not counting those sold without a prescription (known as “over-the-counter” medicines). In my role as a doctor and deputy center director of regulatory programs in the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), I have a deep appreciation for the role both prescription and over-the-counter medicines play in healing and caring for illness. But I have also seen firsthand the harm that can be caused through accidental exposure to or intentional misuse of medicines kept in the household.

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One devastating example of accidental exposure relates to a pain patch containing the powerful opioid pain medication, fentanyl. When used appropriately, these patches can provide effective relief for patients in significant pain — such as pain caused by cancer. But in the last two decades, we have received more than 30 reports of accidental exposure to these patches, many of them in very young children. Tragically, 12 of these incidents were deadly and another 12 required hospitalization.

At the FDA, it’s our job to ensure that the prescription and over-the-counter medicines available to the public are safe and effective, and an important part of this work is making sure consumers know how to prevent injuries from accidental exposure or intentional misuse once medicines are brought home. But we can’t do it alone. So I am calling upon every American to help prevent these heartbreaking accidents and limit the opportunities for misuse by better understanding what is in your medicine cabinet and making it a priority to store and dispose of medications responsibly.

With each medication in your home, read the label to learn the risks associated with the drug and determine whether there are any specific instructions for the right way to store and dispose of it. Also, take a few minutes and become familiar with the safe disposal recommendations for all drugs on the FDA’s Disposal of Unused Medicine website.

While safe storage and disposal is important for all medications, it is especially important for powerful and potentially addictive medications, like opioids. If you or a loved one is taking one of these medications, we encourage you to store them safely and securely (including keeping medicines locked in cabinets if there are young children in your household), and dispose of them as soon as they are no longer needed.

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The safest way to dispose of unused and unneeded medicines is through local and national drug take-back programs. National Drug Take-Back Days, which happen yearly, have collected a total of more than 5 million pounds of unwanted, unused or expired drugs! We feel so strongly about the initiative and safe disposal, that the FDA hosted its own drug take-back day this week for FDA employees at our headquarters in Maryland.

You don't have to wait for National Drug Take-Back Day, though. Safe storage and disposal of medicine is a year-round activity. Check with local law enforcement or the DEA’s website for information on take-back events in your community. And take a minute and go check that medicine cabinet — you just might save a life.

Learn more about the FDA’s recommendations for safe storage and disposal, and find a Drug Take-Back event near you. And read how the FDA is working to combat the epidemic of opioid misuse, abuse, and addiction.

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