We've all seen a doctor for an illness or injury and received medications to treat that affliction. What if you didn't finish your prescription? Whether it was antibiotics or painkillers, it's important to dispose of unused medications properly.

You may ask yourself, Why not keep extra medications around in case I need them? The reality is, keeping unused medications can put you, your family and friends, and even your pets at risk. Whether unused medications are ingested purposely or accidentally, they have potential to cause harm.

When your doctor prescribes a drug, that decision was based on factors specific to your condition. It is not meant to be shared with anyone else. Leftover drugs may expire without your realizing, which in some cases can be harmful. And, unfortunately, a family member's or friend's medicine cabinet can be the beginning of a long road of substance abuse.

Proper disposal of these medications is essential to reducing the risk of harming not only ourselves and loved ones, but the environment, as well.

How to safely dispose of medications

The safest way to get rid of unused medications is to bring them to a take-back program in your community. Listed below are a few ways to find a location near you:

  • Visit the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs' website where you can search for permanent take-back locations in the commonwealth.
  • Find lists on the federal Drug Enforcement Agency website for National Prescription Drug Take-Back Events.
  • Call the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.
  • Contact your local nonemergency police number or local trash-removal service.
  • Ask your pharmacist.

If your community does not have a take-back program, some medications can be discarded in household trash. Check with your pharmacist, doctor, or local poison center first, and then follow these steps:

  1. Remove the medication from its original container and mix with kitty litter or coffee grounds (do NOT crush or open tablets or capsules).
  2. Put the mixture into a sealed container, such as a ziplock bag.
  3. Place the container in your household trash.
  4. Do not throw out any prescription container without removing all personal information from the bottle (either by peeling off the label or using a black marker to cover it up).

Can you flush medications down the toilet?
Some medications can be flushed down the toilet to avoid danger to household members or pets. However, to avoid any impact on the water supply, always check with your pharmacist, doctor, or poison center first. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration provides a list on its website of medications that can be flushed.

What about used needles or syringes?
Many medications require the use of needles or syringes. Once something like this is no longer needed or has expired, it should be safely discarded to avoid any accidental needle sticks, which, if the items are contaminated, can put someone at risk for HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. To avoid this, use these tips:

  • FDA-approved sharps containers can be purchased from your local pharmacy or medical supply store.
  • You may also use a household container that is resistant to punctures, such as a coffee can, milk jug, or laundry detergent container.
  • Never fill any sharps container more than three-quarters of the way full, and tape the lid shut when ready to dispose.
  • Contact your local trash-removal service for more specific disposal information
  • Search here for other locations where you can bring sharps containers for disposal.

If you have any questions about how to get rid of your unused drugs, call your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.

Earl Hugo and Thomas Kelly are PharmD candidates at the Poison Control Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.