What Should You Do With Expired or Leftover Medications?

Kristen Gerencher, MSOTChristina Aungst, PharmD
Updated on April 28, 2022

Key takeaways:

  • There are secure drop-off locations across the country for expired or leftover medications.

  • Some states let you donate unused medications.

  • How you dispose of a medication depends on the type of product. Injectables and needles must be handled separately.

Pill of opened and used pill packs.
ugurhan/iStock via Getty Images

It can happen by accident or after the loss of a loved one: Expired and unused medications pile up in cabinets, drawers, purses, and other places around the home. These medications can pose a risk to others’ safety if they fall into the wrong hands.

Year-round take-back locations can help. Many pharmacies, as well as law enforcement offices in all 50 states, offer secure kiosks for safe medication disposal. Some states also offer donation programs for unused medication. 

Here, we’ll go over how to get rid of old medications and how to find a disposal option near you.

What happens to medications when they expire?

A medication’s expiration date must be stamped on its packaging, per FDA requirements. After the expiration date, a medication’s safety and full strength are no longer guaranteed. 

Medications may start losing their potency after their expiration dates. But they do so at different rates, depending on how they were stored, among other things. A medication’s shelf life is determined by important factors such as temperature, light, and humidity.

Just how fast medications lose their effectiveness is the source of some debate. But there is broad agreement that liquid antibiotics, insulin, and nitroglycerin are among the medications most likely to break down quickly. These are not safe to take past their expiration dates

Can I flush my unwanted medications down the toilet? 

The FDA’s first choice for disposal is a medication take-back location. If that’s not an option, consult the FDA’s flush list before you flush old or unused medications down the toilet. Flushing medications can be bad for the water supply. But some medications can be deadly to keep around the house, such as opioids, like adhesive fentanyl patches. The FDA advises you to flush these.

If you can’t get to a take-back location and your unwanted medications are not on the FDA-approved flush list, the next best option is to throw them in the trash carefully. To do this, keep the medications in their original state. Don’t crush pills or capsules. Then mix them in a clear, sealed plastic bag with any of the following:

  • Coffee grounds

  • Kitty litter

  • Dirt or sawdust

Where can I dispose of expired or leftover medications?

Take-back locations are abundant. You can find secure drop-off locations by typing in your ZIP code at DisposeMyMeds.org

You can also dispose of unwanted prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medication at collection sites on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, which is on April 30, 2022. Enter your address or ZIP code on the website for directions to a collection site near you.

A growing number of pharmacies also collect unused medications. Walgreens and CVS Pharmacy both have in-store medication-disposal kiosk programs at a number of their pharmacies nationwide. 

Before you discard your medications in a drop-off bin, block out your name and personal information on the medication labels with a permanent marker. Check the list of acceptable items that the drop box allows. Most drop boxes allow:

  • Prescriptions, OTC medications, and vitamins

  • Pet medications

  • Medicated topicals, ointments, and lotions

Drop boxes generally don’t allow:

  • Needles and syringes 

  • Liquid medications

  • Illegal drugs

  • Thermometers 

  • Autoinjectors like EpiPens

  • Chemotherapy medications

  • Inhalers

You also can ask your pharmacist how to dispose of any unwanted medications. Some pharmacies have mail-back options. Others offer a product called DisposeRx that allows for safe at-home disposal.

How do I get rid of old sharps safely?

Used needles, also known as “sharps,” can cause injury and exposure to infection. That’s why used sharps have a separate disposal process than pills. Even tiny needles that retract after use, like those in autoinjectors, need to be treated like any other sharp. They should never be recycled or thrown loosely into the trash or toilet.

States and localities have different rules and regulations for properly disposing of sharps. SafeNeedleDisposal.org offers a map that links to each state’s guidelines and points consumers to disposal locations.

What do I do with used inhalers?

The contents of old inhalers are pressurized and can be dangerous if exposed to flame or punctured. The FDA advises calling your local trash and recycling facility for guidance on how to dispose of used inhalers, following local regulations and laws. 

In a notable exception, Walgreens accepts expired and unused inhalers at its medication disposal drop boxes in select Walgreens and Duane Reade stores. 

Can I donate unused medication to someone who needs it?

You may be able to donate unused medication to someone who is uninsured or underinsured. This is possible when the medication is:

  • Not a controlled substance

  • Not expired

  • Unopened

Additional rules often apply, so check with a local pharmacy or prescriber. 

There’s no FDA-approved medication redistribution program for the whole country. But some states, like Georgia and Oklahoma, have active medication reuse programs. For information on what programs may be available in your state, see the National Conference of State Legislatures’ collection of medication reuse and recycle programs.

The bottom line

If you have expired or leftover medications, there are secure drop-off spots across the country where you can safely dispose of them. Proper disposal depends on the type of medication; pills can generally be disposed of in a drop-off bin or in the trash. Injectables and needles must be handled separately. Some states have programs that let people donate unused medications.

References

Cantrell, L. et al. (2012). Stability of active ingredients in long-expired prescription medications. JAMA Archives of Internal Medicine.

CVS Pharmacy. (n.d.). Safer communities.

View All References (13)

Dispose my Meds.  (n.d.). Welcome to dispose my meds™.

DisposeRx. (n.d.). FAQs

Georgia Department of Public Health. (2021). Donated drug repository program

National Conference of State Legislatures. (2021). State prescription drug repository programs.

SafeNeedleDisposal.org. (2022). Safely disposing of home-generated used sharps is important.

Tulsa County Medical Society. (n.d.). Drug recycling.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. (n.d.). Take back day.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2018). Drug disposal: Dispose ‘non-flush list’ medicine in trash.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2020). Drug disposal: Drug take back locations

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2020). Drug disposal: FDA’s flush list for certain medicines.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2020). Drug disposal: Questions and answers.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2021). Where and how to dispose of unused medicines.

Walgreens. (n.d.). Safe medication disposal - dispose of unused medication.

GoodRx Health has strict sourcing policies and relies on primary sources such as medical organizations, governmental agencies, academic institutions, and peer-reviewed scientific journals. Learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate, thorough, and unbiased by reading our editorial guidelines.

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