Medicine & Research

Dispose of Unused Medications

By Ellen Whipple, PharmD. & Stephanie Watson, Director of Pharmacy Candidate from the University of Georgia College of Pharmacy

Unused medication can be dangerous if taken by someone for whom the medication was not prescribed. This poses harm to children and pets who may take medication accidentally. Luckily, there is a way to protect your family from unused or expired medications: proper disposal. All medications – oral, injectable, inhaled, and patch medications – should all be disposed of properly to keep your family safe from unwanted exposure to medication.

Oral Medications 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends three options for safe disposal of tablets, capsules, and liquids: drug take back programs, the FDA flush list, and your household trash.

The Drug Take Back Program, at various locations all across the nation, provides an option for the disposal and destruction of medication in a controlled environment so that medications cannot be accidentally or intentionally used once disposed. According to the FDA, this is the best option for disposal of unused medication. Drug Take Back locations include select police departments, pharmacies, or health departments. To search for a location near you, visit the Drug Enforcement Administration website.

The FDA Flush List is a short list of 15 medications that can safely be flushed down the toilet or drain at home. This is a good option for medication that can be especially harmful and should be disposed of immediately when no longer needed and the Drug Take Back Program is not readily available. Some patients are concerned about the effect that flushing medication down the drain has on the environment. The FDA has studied the effect of flushing these 15 medications on the environment and human health. This study concluded that these 15 medications pose a negligible risk to the environment. There is a higher and more likely risk of harm to humans from accidental exposure in the home, which outweighs any miniscule potential risk to the environment when these medications are flushed.

If the Drug Take Back Program is not available, all medications (except for those on the FDA Flush List) can be safely disposed of in the household trash when done properly. Remove any pills or liquids from their prescription containers, mix them with something undesirable like dirt, cat litter, or used coffee grounds. This makes medication less appealing and unrecognizable to be tampered with by pets, children, or someone intentionally trying to use the medication. Put this mixture in a sealable container – zip lock bag or container with a lid. Throw the container away. Do not crush any tablets or capsules when disposing in the trash.

Injectable Medications

Patients who use injectable medications are familiar with using a sharps container for used needles. Sharps containers can also be used to dispose of unused or expired injectable medications – vials, prefilled syringes, and ampules. Sharps containers should only be filled three-fourths full and should never be overfilled. Secure the three-quarters full sharps container in a mail-back box to be returned to the company for disposal.

Inhaled Medications

Inhaled medications can be included in the Drug Take Back Program or can be safely disposed in household trash or recycle. Since inhalers are aerosolized, keep them away from fires or heated conditions as they could explode or catch fire. 


Used and unused patches should not be cut or torn as this can expose the medication inside at dangerous quantities. All patches can be included in the Drug Take Back Program. Patches can also be disposed in the trash if the Drug Take Back Program is an not available option. Before placing in the trash, fold the adhesive side onto itself so that no adhesive is exposed. This reduces accidental exposure to children and pets who may find a way into the trashcan. 

Remember to scratch out your personal information

When disposing of any medications by any of the routes described above, remember to remove all personal information on medication containers or labels. This includes your name, address, date of birth, phone number, and prescription number. You can remove labels and shred or burn them, or cross out your personal information with a black permanent marker before throwing the container away. 

Spring cleaning your medication cabinet is just as essential as spring cleaning the rest of your home. Stay safe.

For more information on safely disposing of medications, ask your local pharmacist or visit the FDA Safe Disposal of Medicines website: