If you look in the medicine cabinet of most homes, you are likely to find a cornucopia of vitamin supplements, over-the-counter medications, first aid supplies and prescription drugs. Some of these will be current, but many are sure to be expired. Most people do not keep track of when their bottles of Tylenol or prescription painkillers are due to go out of date. And so they mount up, until eventually, someone gets sick of the clutter and goes through it all, tossing all of the old medicine into the garbage or flushing it down the toilet.
It is obviously unreasonable to expect any household to dispose of their medications the minute they expire, but everyone should go through their medicine cabinet on a fairly regular basis. How often this should happen depends on the family. Those who rarely get anything beyond the odd bottle of Tylenol can get away with clearing out their medicine cabinets once a year, but families who have high medical needs requiring a lot of medication should do it more frequently.
People don’t tend to think their expired medication is going to harm anybody, but there are some good reasons to get rid of it at regular intervals:
- Medication starts to lose its effectiveness after it expires. The older it is, the less effective it is. Someone may inadvertently take unsafe doses in order to get the effect they are looking for.
- As medication gets older, its effects become unpredictable, and it can interact with alcohol or with other drugs in potentially harmful ways.
- There is always a risk that medications can fall into the wrong hands, such as children or visitors who, unbeknownst to you, are addicted to prescription painkillers.
- As time passes, you may not remember why you were prescribed a particular medication, and you run the risk of taking something without knowing what its effects are supposed to be.
Just as important as regular disposal of expired medication is the method of disposal. Flushing unused pills down the toilet can be bad for your plumbing and for the environment. Putting them in the garbage is not a good solution either, because there are people who go through garbage cans in search of drugs.
The best way to get rid of unused or expired prescription drugs or over-the-counter medications is to take them to your local pharmacy, who will dispose of it safely, without it falling into the wrong hands or causing harm to the environment. It might also be worth your while to find out if your local municipality or police station runs take-back programs, in which expired medication is handed in for disposal.
If you are not sure whether a medication is still safe for use, your best course of action is to ask your pharmacist. If this is not an option and you are in any doubt, it is better to err on the side of caution. This way, needless tragedies can easily be avoided.