Just like the food in your refrigerator, medications are labeled with expiration dates. And while a bottle of forgotten ibuprofen in the medicine cabinet may not be as risky or as unpleasant as, say, a carton of forgotten milk, it’s important to regularly scan your medications and safely discard any that are too old — both for your health and safety and others.
Here’s more on the risks of expired medication and how to dispose of them. (Spoiler: safe disposal varies by medication.)
Why do I need to discard expired medication?
A medication’s expiration date marks the date at which a medication will begin to lose its full potency and safety. This may be due to a change in a medication’s chemical make-up or a weakening of its strength.
While many expired medications will not cause great harm, expiration dates are very important for certain medications. For instance, not only will an expired antibiotic lose its effectiveness, it may cause more serious illness and lead to antibiotic resistance. (As the term suggests, antibiotic resistance occurs when the bacteria that caused an infection become resistant to an antibiotic, making that infection more difficult to treat.)
Proper disposal of any unneeded medication is critical even if that medication has not formally expired. This prevents others from taking the medication, which is especially important with opioids, benzodiazepines, or other medications with the potential for dependency or misuse.
To find your medication’s expiration date, check the prescription label, bottle, or carton.
How do I safely dispose of expired or unneeded medication?
The best way to discard expired medication is through a medication take-back program. There are both permanent take-back collection sites and recurring events.
If a medication take-back program isn’t an option, there are two methods for safe at-home disposal of your medications.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a “flush list” of medications that should be flushed down the sink or toilet as soon as they are no longer needed. This list includes medications that can cause harm to others, including opioids.
While flushing a medication always has the potential for environmental effects, research studies have found that the risk of leaving these medications accessible far outweighs any risks associated with flushing them.
Never flush a medication that is not included on the FDA’s list.
If your medication isn’t on the flush list and medication take-back isn’t possible, there are certain precautions to take when throwing it in the trash at home.
Mix medications with dirt, cat litter, used coffee grounds, or a similar substance. Never crush tablets or capsules.
Place the mixture in a sealed plastic bag or other container and put it into the trash.
Remove any personal information from empty medicine bottles or packaging and put it into the trash or, if recyclable, the recycling bin.
Practicing safe disposal of inhalers
Inhalers for asthma and other respiratory conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can cause environmental harm if punctured or burned in a fire or incinerator. Follow local regulations when discarding these devices and contact your area’s trash and recycling facility if needed.
Practicing safe sharps disposal
The best method for sharps disposal is to bring them to a designated collection site. Find a safe local disposal site here.
If a collection site isn’t an option, put your sharps into a strong plastic container and place it in the trash. Never recycle your sharps.
The pharmacy care you deserve
Our team can answer any questions you have about your medications. We also offer free, same-day delivery and medication management tools like reminders and auto refills to make it as simple as possible to stay on track with treatment.
To learn more, reach out any time through secure in-app messaging or by phone at 1-800-874-5881.
This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.