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Risks of Expired Medicine and Proper Disposal Guidelines

Posted January 26, 2023 by James F. Grow, Jr., M.D.

Person holding a medication bottle

You should dispose of expired prescription and over-the-counter medicines.

Medicine is expensive. It can be frustrating to frequently replace expired, yet unused medicine. However, there’s a good reason the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) began requiring expiration dates on medicine in 1979. This critical data states whether the product is safe to use and will work as intended.

Using expired medical products is risky and possibly harmful to your health. Once an expiration is past, there is no guarantee that the medicine is safe and effective.

Why taking expired medicine can be dangerous to your health

Taking expired medicine can be hazardous to your health due to potential changes in a drug’s chemical composition or a decrease in its strength. Some medications such as blood thinners used for blood clots, become less effective over time. Taking these less effective medications can lead to serious health complications such as a heart attack or stroke.

In addition, antibiotics that lose potency and fail to treat an infection can lead to a more serious infection, severe complications or antibiotic resistance.

There also is a risk for liquid medications getting contaminated, which can lead to an infection or other dangerous complications.  

How to properly dispose of expired medication

Once your medicine is expired, proper disposal is important. Failing to safely throw out your medicine, especially opioids, can lead to dangerous drugs ending up in the wrong hands. Every year thousands of children end up in emergency rooms because they consumed medicines while an adult wasn’t looking.

Drug take-back programs are the best way to safely dispose of medicine. Many health systems, police departments and community pharmacies offer unused medication drop boxes. In addition, the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) sponsors National Drug Take-Back Days, where extra drop-off locations are available to dispose of unwanted medications. 

If that’s not an option, the FDA recommends throwing medicine away in the household trash after mixing it with an undesirable substance like dirt, used coffee grounds or kitty litter and then sealing it in a container. Scratch out all your personal information on the empty prescription bottle and then throw it away.

It’s not a good idea to flush unused medication. When flushed or poured down the drain, the drug chemicals can pollute our water sources, which can affect marine life or even wind up in our drinking water.

When in doubt, especially if you have a chronic or life-threatening condition, it’s important to get a new prescription before your drug expires and keep up with refills as needed. Then, safely discard your old medication.