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The Right Way To Dispose of Unused Opioids and Other Medications

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University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children'sExperts in Children's Health
closeup of prescription medicine bottles

If you are like many people, you have unused and expired prescription medicine in your home, some of which may be prescription narcotic medications.

Safe disposal of all medicines is important, but it is especially so with prescription narcotic medications. Too often, they fall into the wrong hands.

More than 70 percent of people who abuse opioid drugs get them from family and friends, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. This is a particularly alarming trend among adolescents and young adults.

“Particularly with opioids, it’s important to get them out of the house when you don’t need them any longer,” says UH Rainbow pediatric surgeon Anne Kim Mackow, MD.  This measure and the secure storage of these medications by parents can decrease the ease of access for this at-risk population.

A good option for getting rid of unused or unwanted medications is leaving them in a secure drop box. For example, both UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital and UH Rainbow Ahuja Center for Women & Children host MedSafe locked disposal containers.

The MedSafe boxes accept prescription medications and over-the-counter medications, in original packaging if possible. Also accepted are liquid medication bottles that are less than 4 ounces in a zip-top plastic bag.

Other locations for disposing unused and expired medications can be found by visiting RXDrugDropBox.org. The Ohio Board of Pharmacy also has an online drug disposal box locator.

Opioid Stewardship

“One of our big topics is opioid stewardship,” says Dr. Mackow, who led the effort to install the MedSafe locked disposal containers at the UH facilities.

In addition to providing safe and secure drop-off boxes, opioid stewardship also means not automatically sending surgery patients home with opioid prescriptions “just in case” they need them, Dr. Mackow says.

In addition, doctors now can e-prescribe, where they enter prescription information into a computer device – like a tablet or laptop computer – and securely transmit the prescription to pharmacies using a special software program and connectivity to a transmission network. When a pharmacy receives the prescription request, it can begin filling the medication right away. This allows more flexibility to prescribe narcotic painkillers if and when a patient needs them.

Dr. Mackow says it has become standard practice for pain control for doctors to advise using multiple medications, including over-the-counter medications, and then adding in opioids only as necessary. Counseling families to help set their expectations about pain control and ensure they rely first on use of the over-the-counter options is important practice to diminish use of opioids, she says. 

“We’ve learned that we don’t have to give quite as many prescriptions or as many doses as we did in the past,” she says. Together, these practices cut down on the amount of unused opioids that are accessible in the community.

Other Disposal Options

There also are other ways to get rid of unneeded medications.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration sponsors National Prescription Drug Take Back Day in communities nationwide. Your community may sponsor its own take-back program.  Consumers can also look out for various take-back or mail-in programs for unused medicines.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says if you can’t access a program or drop box, medicines on the FDA flush list should be flushed down the toilet. If the medicine is not on the flush list, follow these FDA instructions to throw the medicine in the trash at home.

“A lot of people feel strange about flushing medicines down the toilet,” Dr. Mackow says. “That’s why something like MedSafe has appeal. I try to remind families they can bring them back for disposal when they come for their post-op check.”

She hopes secure drop boxes become a fixture at pharmacies and other locations. 

“Having a visual reminder in place seems like a more reliable way to encourage people to properly dispose of unused medicines,” she says.

Related Links

UH Rainbow Ahuja Center for Women & Children offers pediatric primary care, women’s health and OB/GYN services, pregnancy and parenting classes, community resources and much more – all housed in one convenient, state-of-the-art women and children’s facility. Learn more about UH Rainbow Ahuja Center for Women & Children.

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