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The Importance of Proper Medication Disposal

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University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children'sExperts in Children's Health
A woman holds a bag filled with expired pills ready to recycle

Each year, about 60,000 children ages 5 or younger go to the emergency room after taking medications they shouldn’t have. Among teens, the fastest-growing drug problem is the misuse or abuse of prescription pain medications, often found at home.

“There’s a common misconception that prescription drugs are safer to take than other kinds of drugs,” says Anne Stormorken, MD, Medical Director of the Pediatric Pain Service at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s. “Prescription drugs are often easier to access with many teens finding them right in a medicine cabinet at home.” More than two-thirds of teenagers who have misused pain medicines say they got them from friends and family.

If you take prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) medications, disposing of them properly can help keep your little ones, teens, other adults and even your pets all safe from harm.

To Flush, or Not to Flush?

There are several ways to safely dispose of expired or unneeded medications.

The safest way is to bring them to a drug take-back location or event. University Hospitals participates in National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day each year. Learn more about drop-off locations that are available year-round across the region.

You can also contact your city or county law enforcement officials or your pharmacist to find out if there is a local take-back program. Or, visit the Diversion Control Division of the DEA website and select “Search for Year Round Pharmaceutical Disposal Locations.”

If you can’t find a take-back program, Dr. Stormorken says to first read the medication label or patient information leaflet to see if the drug should immediately be flushed down the toilet or sink. You can also check the FDA website and search for “flush list.”

Most medicines, however, should not be flushed. Instead, follow these steps to dispose of them at home:

  • Take the drugs out of their containers and combine them with an unappealing substance. Kitty litter or used coffee grounds are good options.
  • Place the mixture in a disposable container that you can seal, such as a zippered plastic storage bag or a plastic container with a lid.
  • Add the container to your household trash for collection.
  • Remove your name and prescription number on empty prescription drug bottles before recycling them or throwing them away with your household trash. This prevents someone from gaining access to your personal information.

Medications that are delivered via a sticky skin patch require special handling. Follow the instructions on the medication package when disposing of used or leftover patches.

To prevent intentional or unintentional use, keep all the medications you are currently using in a place that your children can’t access. This includes a locked cupboard or drawer or high above a child’s reach.

Get Rid of Sharps Safely

Needles, syringes, lancets and auto injectors – collectively called “sharps” – may be used to manage a variety of diseases and conditions at home.

“When sharps are not disposed of properly, they can also endanger others,” warns Dr. Stormorken. “A child, or anyone who is pricked by a random sharp is at risk for hepatitis and HIV. If this happens, wash the area and contact a healthcare provider right away.”

To dispose of used sharps:

  • Place them in a sharps disposal container available at pharmacies, medical supply companies, healthcare provider offices and online.
  • If a specified sharps disposal container is not available, drop used sharps in a heavy-gauge plastic bottle with a tight-fitting lid, such as a laundry detergent container. Keep the container far out of reach of children.
  • Check your community waste guidelines for instructions on how to dispose of the container. Depending on where you live, there may be a drop-off box at a local hospital or pharmacy, or you may be able to leave it at a hazardous waste site.

Related Links

National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day is a no-questions-asked event where communities throughout the country set up collection sites for the safe disposal of expired, unwanted, or unused pharmaceutical controlled substances and other medications. Learn more about drop-off locations that are available year-round across the region.

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