Clean out that medicine cabinet — but do it safely

If disposing of expired and unneeded medications is part of your regular spring cleaning ritual, it's very important to safely and responsibly dispose of drugs and medical paraphernalia.

First, check expiration dates on prescription and over-the-counter medications and put aside anything that's old. You might be surprised at how long ago you bought that cold medicine or pain reliever. Taking an expired medication isn't necessarily dangerous, but it's likely that it won't be as effective.

We don't keep drugs only in our medicine cabinets. Be sure to check nightstands and kitchen cabinets. And don't forget the four-legged members of your household. If Fluffy or Fido was prescribed an ointment or tablet, check those medications, too.

It's not enough just to throw pills in the trash — where someone could find them — or pour liquid medications down the sink. More Americans are taking injectable medications at home, particularly for diabetes, and being diagnosed with asthma, so disposing of “sharps” and inhalers has also become an important part of medicine cabinet maintenance.

The best way to dispose of medications is through drug take-back programs, such as the one coming up on April 30. On National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, sponsored by the Drug Enforcement Administration, medical facilities and law enforcement will accept all unwanted drugs, except for sharps, liquids and patches, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information, visit

Since the take-back program started in 2010, the DEA has collected more than 15.2 million tons of drugs. Many pharmacies offer year-round drug take-back services. Those can also be found on the DEA's website.

If you need to dispose of medications at home, here are some tips.

• Flush what you can flush. I don't recommend flushing because medications can contaminate the water supply. But, because about 130 Americans die each day of opioid overdose, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration believes that the risks associated with opioid abuse or accidental ingestion outweigh what it considers negligible impact on the environment.

So, even though I do not agree, the FDA says it's OK to flush away those tablets of oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine or similar drugs. The FDA's full list is on its website,, or search for “FDA flushable drugs.”

• Trash what you can trash. It's not a good idea to throw pill bottles — empty or containing medications — into the trash. Here's how to dispose of drugs, including chemotherapy drugs, at home.

First, take the drugs out of their containers. Don't crush pills or open capsules.

Next, mix the drugs with kitty litter, coffee grounds or some other yucky material. Put the mixture into a sealed container or sealable plastic bag and place it in the garbage.

Before tossing the prescription bottles, remove the labels or use a permanent marker to cover up personally identifiable information (name, address, etc.).

There are also commercially available at-home medication disposal methods that can be used with pills, tablets, capsules and liquids. For example, DisposeRX is a powder that is added with water to a prescription vial. When the vial is shaken, the medication is chemically and physically sealed within a polymer gel. It's pricey, at more than $150 for 100 packets.

• Deal with sharps and inhalers. Sharps shouldn't be thrown in the trash; it's both a safety and health hazard. Some pharmacies accept them, and there are mail-back programs, but here's what the FDA recommends for at-home disposal.

Place used sharps in a heavy-duty, non-see-through plastic container, such as a detergent bottle, with a lid. Use heavy-duty tape to secure the lid, write “do not recycle” on the outside, and place it in the garbage.

When disposing of inhalers, read instructions on the labeling and follow local regulations and laws regarding aerosol products. Most inhalers can be safely thrown into the household trash or recycled.

A clean medicine cabinet is a safe medicine cabinet! If it's been a year (or more) since your medicine cabinet has had a thorough going-over, now is the time. As always, keep medications away from children and pets and don't leave opioids where anyone can find them.

• Teri Dreher is a board-certified patient advocate. A critical care nurse for 30+ years, she is founder of NShore Patient Advocates ( She is offering a free phone consultation to Daily Herald readers; call her at (847) 612-6684.

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