Advise Me

Is My Medication Safe? Securing & Disposing of Old Medicine

At the height of the COVID pandemic, providing a safe and secure home was extremely important since kids were home all the time. But even now, with life returning to a more normal routine, keeping our home safe is still as important as ever.

We spoke with Bryan Kuhn, PharmD, a pharmacist and poison education specialist at Banner - University Medical Center Phoenix, who provided guidance for securing medication in your home and disposing of unused medication. This guidance continues to be applicable even after kids have returned to school and activities. Dr. Kuhn’s first and most consistent recommendation was to call Banner Health’s Poison & Drug Information Center whenever a child has potentially ingested a toxin or if you have a question. When calling the center, you’ll speak with a nurse or pharmacist specifically trained in handling poison and drug-related emergencies.

Securing medication

Curious kiddos exploring the medicine cabinet is likely the first image that comes to mind, but there are many more reasons to protect your medication. Dr. Kuhn offered a few common, but often overlooked, scenarios and offers tips to minimize your risk.

  • Older children and adults looking to experiment – It goes without saying that medication can be extremely dangerous when abused. Dr. Kuhn recommended a medicinal lockbox for parents with older children. Especially parents whose children have a history of drug use.
  • A significant other sharing a medication cabinet with you – Slipping into the daily routine can be dangerous when reaching for medication. Keep your pills in a separate drawer or room from your significant other to avoid a mix-up when your routine is on autopilot.
  • Mixing and consolidating medication – Dr. Kuhn cautioned against combining pills into a single container. Even when one prescription is refilled and you have a few left over, Dr. Kuhn warned that “depending on the doctor’s plan, prescription strengths can sometimes change from one fulfillment to the next. Combining pills could result in identical pills with a stronger dosage getting mixed up with pills of a lower dosage. It’s very easy to take a dangerous dosage when this happens.” Dr. Kuhn gave the exception of the weekly pill box but encouraged anybody sorting pills to use extreme caution and to open just one container at a time.
  • Sharps and injectables – No matter your age, syringes can be extremely dangerous. Store them far from the reach of children and be mindful as you handle them. Proper disposal is just as important as storage. See the section below for instructions.
  • Refrigerated medication – Children’s antibiotics are commonly given as a liquid, requiring refrigeration. Protect your children against accidentally drinking the antibiotic by explaining what the antibiotic is, why it isn’t a snack and then keeping it behind other items and on the top shelves in the fridge.
  • Child-proof lids – Dr. Kuhn warned against overconfidence when it comes to “child-proof” lids. “No lid is truly child-proof,” said Dr. Kuhn. “In fact, these lids are designed to be hard enough to deter children but not too hard for the elderly and people with weakened motor skills to open.” He added that parents should never let their children play with a pill container as a toy. Even a sealed, empty container might teach children that medicine is for play.

When to get rid of medication

  • Unused medication – From time to time, you may find yourself with a surplus of medication. While it may be tempting to keep the medicine for future use, storing unused prescriptions can lead to accidental consumption or abuse. Do not keep these medications, especially pain relievers and other commonly abused drugs, as it can be an unnecessary temptation for you or somebody in your home.
  • Expired medication – Dr. Kuhn clarified that while some drugs have been found to turn toxic upon expiration, expired medication is rarely dangerous for that reason. Rather, the medicine’s strength can fade over time and he warned that this can also be dangerous if people are expecting the medication to counteract a dangerous symptom.
  • Over-the-counter – “People tend to be more casual about securing medication they can buy without a prescription,” said Dr. Kuhn. “But even over-the-counter pills can cause serious damage if taken by children, in excess or without need.” Keep your non-prescription drugs secure and dispose of expired medication, just as you would dispose of your prescribed medication.

Disposing of pills & fluids

Although you can participate in National Drug Take Back Day, that only happens once or twice a year. If that is not available, you may need to look for other options.

For most people the best option is a local pharmacy or drug store. Many have a drop box or a service that will safely destroy the medication. Some fire stations are also equipped to receive medication for disposal. In every case, call ahead to find out what can be accepted and what you should bring to properly dispose of the medication. Many pharmacies will not accept needles, syringes and injectable fluids. For these items, purchase a sharps container and follow instructions to ship them to a facility that will dispose of the materials safely. “Do not dispose of medication by flushing down the toilet or rinsing down a sink,” Dr. Kuhn said. He explained that medication introduced into the public water supply often goes unfiltered and if done in excess, could eventually taint public water.

Mail services also exist to make disposing of pills easy enough that you never have to leave your home. Simply empty your pills into the supplied bag, which contains special chemicals designed to neutralize the drugs’ active ingredients then throw away or ship to a specific location. There are limits to these services, so read carefully and follow the instructions. Also keep in mind, there may be an associated cost.

Avoid unnecessary trips from spot to spot by calling ahead to verify that your medication will be accepted and that hours are as labeled. If you have any questions regarding your pills or if you or someone in your home is having an emergency related to drugs or poisoning, call the Banner Poison & Drug Information Center immediately. Whether it’s a scorpion sting, medication question, first aid advice or potential poisoning, the phone number is (800) 222-1222. Assistance is available in more than 150 languages and is available 24/7. To reach the center directly, please call (602) 253-3334.

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Content in this article was updated on February 17, 2023.


COVID-19 Pharmacy Parenting Poison Prevention Safety