Your Medications Are Expired. Now What?

Expired meds may be dangerous when taken or disposed of improperly

(RxWiki News) Most people check the expiration date on their milk carton before taking a big gulp. But what about the expiration dates found in their medicine cabinet?

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to warn consumers of the dangers tied to taking and improperly disposing of expired medications. To avoid these dangers, the FDA encourages consumers to take stock of any expired drugs and dispose of them thoughtfully.

Last Saturday was National Prescription Drug Take Back Day. If you missed it, no need to worry. To find an authorized collector in your area, visit the Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) List of Controlled Substance Public Disposal Locations.

Why Dispose of Expired Medications?

Although some people may think holding on to expired medications is harmless or even smart thinking, the FDA stresses that keeping drugs past their expiration dates can be dangerous for both patients and their communities.

The stability of medication is affected by exposure to light, as well as temperature and humidity. Manufacturers only test a drug's stability through its expiration date. That means some medications meant to treat acute or even life-threatening conditions could lose their potency and not work past their expiration dates.

People in the US also abuse prescription drugs at alarming rates, according to the DEA. And many of the abused drugs, which often result in accidental overdose, are obtained from the medicine cabinets of family and friends.

What's the Best Way to Dispose of Expired Drugs?

The FDA and DEA agree that the ideal way to dispose of expired drugs is to deliver them to a take-back program, such as the yearly National Prescription Drug Take Back Day coordinated by the DEA.

If you miss the take-back day and if there are no DEA-authorized collection sites near you, there are two ways to dispose of most medications. The right method for your situation will depend on the medication:

1) Mix with kitty litter or used coffee grounds to be thrown into household trash. To put a medication in the household trash, remove the medication from its original container and mix it with something undesirable, such as used kitty litter. Then place the mixture in something like a resealable storage bag or empty can. This will prevent the drug from leaking. Then you can throw the container in the trash.

Before throwing the bottle or packaging away, experts recommend scratching out all of your personal information on the empty medicine bottle to protect your identity.

2) Flush medicines. This option is for some medicines that could be especially harmful if accidentally ingested. These medications will have specific directions to immediately flush them down the sink or toilet when they are no longer needed.

The FDA's opinion differs from that of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on this matter. The FDA says certain medications should be flushed due to the risk of ingestion by children and the potential for abuse. The EPA, on the other hand, says medications are an emerging contaminant in our waterways and could negatively affect aquatic life. A full list of these medications can be found on the FDA's website.

How Can Premature Expiration Be Avoided?

The manner in which medications are stored is extremely important to the drugs retaining their potency. Most drugs have storage recommendations on their labels, which are to be followed to ensure they remain safe. According to the FDA, most medications are to be stored in a cool, dry place away from sunlight, such as a dresser drawer, closet shelf or kitchen cabinet. This means it is not recommended to store medications in a medicine cabinet in a restroom, where they can become steamy during a bath or shower.

Even when your unexpired drugs are stored in a safe manner, examine their appearance before taking them. If you notice the medication has changed color, has an odor, or is chipped or soft, experts recommend disposing of it. Furthermore, if the liquid in capsules stays separated after shaking or if injectable drugs appear solid, dispose of them.

If you suspect your medication is no longer safe to take but are not sure, you can always ask your local pharmacist to confirm.

Written by Anyssa Garza, PharmD, BCMAS

Last Updated:
May 1, 2019