Your post-surgery pain is gone and you have extra pain pills left over. Add those to the antibiotics you never finished (bad idea!) and the antidepressants you no longer need. What should you do with old drugs when it’s time to get rid of them? Don’t keep them in your medicine cabinet. Kids and pets can get into them, or you may be tempted to use them for an unrelated condition or even pass them on to a friend (another bad idea: What works great for one person might be dangerous for someone else).

In general, you can’t just toss expired or unwanted drugs in the trash. That can be very dangerous to your children or your pets if they find them. And it’s not usually as simple as flushing them down the toilet, either. Those drugs can contaminate waterways, and as the Environmental Protection Agency points out, the drugs you flush may eventually get into your drinking water.

Here’s the best way to dump drugs you no longer need.

Drug take-back programs

Many city and county governments offer days when prescription and over-the-counter drugs are accepted for disposal. Call your local trash or recycling company to see if and when this service is available in your community. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) also works with state and local law enforcement agencies to occasionally sponsor National Prescription Drug Take-Back Days.


Recently, the DEA passed new rules that allow pharmacies, as well as hospitals and clinics that have on-site pharmacies, to collect medication. Not all pharmacies will participate in the program, so call first before dropping off your medication. You can search for a participating location near you using the map at

Toss some

If you have to throw away your medication, don’t just toss the bottle in the trash. Take the pills out of the bottle and mix them with kitty litter, coffee grounds or sawdust. This makes them less appealing to your pets and kids and harder to find for people who might go through the garbage looking for drugs. Dump the mixture in an empty can, sealable bag or other container to keep it from opening up in the trash. Be sure to cover up or remove your name and other personal information — including prescription number — from the empty medicine container. Try a permanent marker or duct tape. 

Flush some

The Food and Drug Administration keeps a list of some drugs that actually should be flushed down the toilet or washed down the sink. Flushing these medications will get rid of them immediately so they’re not a danger to kids or pets in your home. The list is very short and mostly includes very potent narcotic painkillers such as Demerol, OxyContin and Percocet. These drugs are especially harmful — and possibly fatal — if taken by a child or someone who wasn’t prescribed the medication.

These suggestions apply to both prescription and over-the counter drugs. When in doubt about how to dispose of any medication, call your pharmacist for advice.