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Accidental drug overdoses are surprisingly common in the United States. From 2006 to 2011, unintentional poisonings from prescription opioids alone accounted for 138,603 trips to the emergency room. And according to Dan Budnitz, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Medication Safety Program, a major risk factor for drug overdoses in children and adults is easy access to multiple medications.
Storing meds on a high shelf out of sight will help protect children, and regularly disposing of unused and expired drugs will reduce risks for all ages.
But many people fail to get rid of unneeded drugs. A 2017 nationally representative survey of 1,006 adults by Consumer Reports found that about one-third of Americans haven’t cleaned out the medicine cabinet in the past year; nearly one-fifth haven’t done so in the past three years.
Here’s how you can clean out your medicine cabinet so that it’s safe (and useful).
Your pharmacy — as well as hospitals, clinics, long-term-care facilities and narcotic treatment programs — might accept your unused medications. Search for an authorized facility near you at disposemymeds.org. You can also drop off unused meds at designated police departments, fire stations and other sites on the next National Prescription Take Back Day, Saturday, Oct. 27.
Costco, CVS and Rite Aid pharmacies sell postage-paid envelopes for customers to mail any prescription, including opioids and over-the-counter medications, to a disposal facility.
In almost all states, Walgreens has free, anonymous and secure kiosks where you can dispose of any medication. Remove your personal information from the packaging and drop unwanted medication (including opioids) into the slot.
A fifth of the people we surveyed said they got rid of old medications by simply throwing them in the trash. But it’s easy for pills to be fished out by kids or even pets. If getting to one of the drop-off sites described above is not an option, you can put pills in the trash: Just hide them in coffee grounds, sawdust or cat litter, then seal both in a plastic bag. (Don’t do this with opioids or other meds that can be abused.)
For dangerous drugs such as opioids, the Food and Drug Administration says flushing them down the toilet is an option. But trace amounts of drugs can end up in the water supply and possibly harm aquatic life. Flush these drugs only if you have absolutely no other choice.
Manufacturers are required by law to stamp an expiration date on medication; it’s the date beyond which they can no longer guarantee the drug’s safety and potency. Our medical experts say you can keep most medications for up to 12 months past the expiration date, with two exceptions.
Antibiotic tetracycline pills should never be taken after they’ve expired, when they can become toxic and cause kidney damage. And expired liquid meds such as nitroglycerin, insulin and injectable drugs such as epinephrine (think EpiPens) should be replaced immediately upon expiration because drugs in liquid form lose potency beyond the expiration date and might not work well or at all.
Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Read more at ConsumerReports.org.