Safe Disposal of Unused Medications

Improper disposal of both prescribed and over-the-counter medications is an environmental concern—and a potential liability issue if the medicines are taken by others and then cause harm.

Federal disposal guidelines developed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) are summarized here:

  • Follow any specific disposal instructions on the drug label or patient information card that accompanies the medication. Do not flush prescription drugs down the toilet or sink unless this information specifically instructs you to do so.
  • Take advantage of community drug take-back programs that allow the public to bring unused drugs to a central location for proper disposal. Call your city or county government's household trash and recycling service or your local pharmacy to see if a take-back program is available in your community. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), working with state and local law enforcement agencies, sponsors National Prescription Drug Take-Back Days throughout the U.S. and authorizes collection sites.
  • If no instructions are given on the drug label and no take-back program is available in your area, throw the drugs in the trash, but first:
    • Remove them from their original containers and mix them with an undesirable substance, such as used coffee grounds, kitty litter, or soil. The medications will then be less appealing to children and unrecognizable to people who may intentionally go through your trash.
    • Place the mixture in a sealable bag, empty can, or other container to prevent it from leaking or breaking out of the garbage bag.
    • Remove all identifying information on the prescription label to make it unreadable. This will help protect the privacy of personal health information.
  • Some prescription drugs, such as powerful narcotic pain relievers like the fentanyl patch and other controlled substances, carry instructions for flushing to reduce the danger of unintentional use or overdose and illegal abuse. If you are unsure about whether you should flush the drugs, review the FDA’s updated list of medicines recommended for disposal by flushing.
  • Read handling instructions on the labeling of inhalers and aerosol products because they could be dangerous if punctured or thrown into a fire or incinerator. To ensure safe disposal that complies with local regulations and laws, contact your local trash and recycling facility.

For additional information, visit the FDA’s Safe Disposal of Medicines webpage and the DEA’s Drug Disposal Information resource page.

The guidelines suggested here are not rules, do not constitute legal advice, and do not ensure a successful outcome. The ultimate decision regarding the appropriateness of any treatment must be made by each healthcare provider considering the circumstances of the individual situation and in accordance with the laws of the jurisdiction in which the care is rendered.