How to store and dispose of your prescription pain relievers
In 2016, U.S. pharmacies dispensed more than 214 million prescriptions for opioid pain relievers such as Vicodin and OxyContin – enough for every adult American to have a full bottle of these pills. However, most people receiving these prescriptions report using only some or none of the pills. As many as 92 percent of people recovering from surgery stop taking their medications before the pills run out. Yet, only about one-quarter properly store or dispose of their unused meds – leaving the highly addictive prescriptions vulnerable to fall into the wrong hands.
If you were prescribed opioid pain relievers, don’t just relegate them to your junk drawer, leave them on your kitchen counter or store them in your medicine cabinet. Here’s what to do instead:
Store medications securely
Every year, 60,000 emergency department visits result from children under the age of five being unintentionally exposed to medications. Even medications that some may consider relatively benign, such as cough syrup, Tylenol and ibuprofen, can be dangerous if taken by children without supervision, but opioids are especially risky to this demographic. As Dan Budnitz, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Medication Safety Program noted, “For certain long-acting opioids… one pill can be a fatal dose for a child.”
Frequently misused and highly addictive medications, such as opioids, are also especially susceptible to theft. You might not think anyone in your home would take your prescription medications, but one-third of high school seniors say it would be easy to obtain opioids such as Vicodin, OxyContin, and Percocet – and research shows that the medicine cabinets of family and friends are among the first places they look to obtain such drugs.
That is why it’s important to keep all pharmaceuticals in their original, child-resistant packaging and to store them in a locked cabinet or box. There is no harm in being cautious given the potential consequences of medication misuse.
Get rid of medications you don’t need
Once you’re no longer taking the opioid pain relievers you’ve been prescribed, it’s important to get rid of them – but you must do it in the right way.
Find a take back program
Twice each year, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) hosts a National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, which includes more than five thousand collection sites. This event, held in the spring and the fall, encourages people to drop off unused, unwanted or expired medications.
To dispose of your medications safely and anonymously year-round, you may also locate a public disposal location near you on the DEA website.
Throw them away with thought
If you’re not able to visit a public disposal location or participate in National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, throwing medications in the trash or flushing them down the toilet is a safer alternative to keeping them unattended in your home – although, it should be noted, this practice may have a negative impact on the environment.
Before putting medications in the trash or the toilet, check if your prescription came with specific disposal directions and consult the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) list of medicines recommended for disposal by flushing. Specifically, patches containing the highly addictive and powerful synthetic opioid, fentanyl, designated only for those with severe pain, should be flushed down the toilet immediately, once no longer in use, to reduce the danger of an unintentional overdose.
If you choose to dispose of your medication in the garbage, the FDA suggests taking the following steps:
- Remove the drugs from their original containers and mix them with something undesirable, such as used coffee grounds, dirt, or cat litter. This makes the medicine less appealing to children and pets and unrecognizable to someone who might intentionally go through the trash looking for drugs.
- Put the mixture in something you can close (a re-sealable zipper storage bag, empty can, or other container) to prevent the drug from leaking or spilling out.
- Throw the container in the garbage.
- Scratch out all your personal information on the empty medicine packaging to protect your identity and privacy. Throw the packaging away.
Proper storage and disposal can save a life
There’s no reason to leave opioid medications out in the open. Whether you’re currently taking a prescription as prescribed by your doctor or you have medications that you no longer need, make sure to follow the steps outlined above. In 2015, more than 15 thousand people died from overdoses involving prescription opioids – following these simple steps may help ensure that your prescription doesn’t contribute to another tragedy.
Linda Richter, PHD
Linda Richter is Director of Policy Research and Analysis at Center on Addiction