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How to properly store and dispose of prescription medication


Most of us have had to take prescription medication at some point in our lives. How to take the medication is usually described on the label, but proper storage and disposal often isn’t.

This week on “Take Care,” Dr. Elizabeth Higdon discusses how to store and dispose of medicine in order to keep it potent, and safe from harming others and the environment. Higdon is an instructor at the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences campus in Colchester, Vermont, teaches classes on over-the-counter medications, and works as a community pharmacist.

You may think the best place to keep prescriptions is the medicine cabinet of your bathroom. But Higdon says this is actually one of the worst places.

“Medications really need to be stored in a dry, cool place away from light, and nowadays if you think about your medicine cabinet, you know that it’s typically next to a shower, next to a bath—exposed to hot temperatures,” Higdon said. “And being exposed to high temperatures or moisture could start to break down medication.”

Some medications can be more sensitive to this than others, but more importantly, Higdon says there are people who are more sensitive to medication than others. This can include those who are taking medication for a life-threatening reason.

“If we’re using medication for a life or death reason, obviously we want it to be as potent as possible. So you also need to be thinking about what you’re using the medication for,” Higdon said.

So now that you know your medicine cabinet isn’t the ideal place to keep your prescription medication, you may be wondering what a good place is.

The best place is somewhere dark, dry, and room temperature, says Higdon who recommends a linen cabinet or a pantry for storage.

After you’re done taking a medication and no longer need to store it, it’s time todispose of it. Higdon says for many years physicians recommended flushing it down the toilet, but this can be one of the worst things for both the environment and others. When medication is flushed down the toilet it can travel to areas outside of your sewage tank and end up in other water, such as the water we drink or water fish and other organisms live in.

“I would recommend to my patients that they take [unwanted medication] to adrug takeback day that usually occurs in April every year,” Higdon said.

Other options Higdon recommends are certain police stations that have a 24/7 drop box for unwanted medication, and select pharmacies that also have a drug takeback day once a month. To find out which police stations and pharmacies around you offer this, Higdon says to refer to their respective websites. The U.S. Department of Justice also has a way to search for a takeback site near you at their website.

However, if this isn’t offered near you or you are unable to go to a drug takeback day, Higdon says the simple method of throwing medication in the trash can still be used so long as you take certain precautions.

“What we recommend is taking off any sensitive information from your prescription bottle, and then putting in a little bit of water, and then mix in some kind of undesirable substance. So put in salt or coffee grounds or kitty litter, to start to breakdown the medication,” Higdon said.

After this, Higdon says to put the mixture in some sort of disguising package, like a plastic bag, and throw it out on garbage day so it’s not sitting in the garbage can for an extended amount of time.