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Last updated: Sep 24, 2021
4 min read

How to safely store medication and prescription drugs

Medications should be stored in a cool, dry location, out of the reach of children and pets. Unused or expired medications should be disposed of appropriately since keeping them around increases the chance of others (especially children) being harmed. Drug take-back programs are available in most communities for safe disposal. If this is not an option, the FDA provides steps to dispose of medications in the garbage safely. Certain drugs, primarily opioid pain medicines, should be immediately flushed down the toilet since severe harm can result from accidental exposure.

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Most of us have routines for keeping our house tidy, but when’s the last time you cleaned out the pill bottles, used creams, and eye drops overflowing from your cabinet? 

Safely storing your medications can help make sure they stay effective. But it also helps prevent others, including children and pets, from accidental harm. Here’s what you should know about storing your medicines and what to do with unused, old prescriptions. 

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The do’s and don’ts of safe medication storage 

Properly storing your medications helps keep your drugs safe, effective, and away from others that might be harmed by consuming them. Follow these tips for all your medications, including prescription and over-the-counter products: 

  • Do store your medications in a cool, dry place, away from direct heat or light. Despite its name, the medicine cabinet in your bathroom is one of the worst places to store medications. Bathrooms often become hot and humid, which can damage your pills and affect how well they work. Instead, choose a location not prone to extreme temperatures, such as a shelf in your bedroom or a kitchen cabinet (not near the stove). 
  • Do keep all your medications up high, out of the reach of children and pets. Children (and your furry family members) love to explore and put everything in their mouths—and child-proof tops don’t always work. Just one pill of a medicine that’s safe for you might have severe consequences for a child. Store your medication in a location that’s impossible for children to access and keep the bottles out of sight. 
  • Do store medicines in their original containers with the safety cap on and secured. Some people find it helpful to organize their medications into pillboxes, especially if they take several drugs. But it’s best to keep your medications in their original containers if you can. Your pharmacy may purchase your medicines from different manufacturers, so your pills may not always look alike. Keeping your medication in its original containers, with its original labels, can help prevent mix-ups. 
  • Do keep your medications separate from other household members’ prescriptions. Everyone in your household should store their medicines in separate, safe locations to help prevent confusion. 
  • Don’t store your medicines in the refrigerator unless indicated. Only certain medications should be stored in the fridge. Your prescription bottle will state if this is necessary, but ask your pharmacist if you’re unsure. 
  • Don’t keep medications past their expiration date. All drugs have an expiration date located on the prescription bottle. It’s important not to keep or use medicines past this date since they can become less effective after they expire. Certain medications (like liquid antibiotics) are also prone to bacterial growth if kept for too long. Get in the habit of regularly going through your medicines and properly disposing of the ones you no longer need or that have expired. 
  • Don’t keep unused medications after your treatment has ended. It may be tempting to save your leftover antibiotics or pain pills for future needs, but get rid of them if your treatment has ended. A healthcare provider should always reassess you for any new condition, so avoid self-diagnosing and taking old medication. Taking antibiotics when they’re not needed won’t help you feel any better and can lead to antibiotic resistance—essentially super bacteria that don’t respond well to treatment. And having unused pain pills sitting in your house increases the chances of them falling into the wrong hands, which could cause devastating effects. 

How to dispose of unused medication 

If you have medications you no longer need, simply tossing them in the trash is not recommended. There are several ways to safely and easily get rid of them. 

Drug take-back programs

Drug take-back programs are the best way to dispose of most medications. Several options are available (FDA-a, 2021):

  • The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) sponsors a National Prescription Drug Take Back Day each year. The DEA partners with local communities to set up drop-off locations where you can bring your unused medications. The DEA website provides a list of drop-off sites as the date nears, but you can always check with your local police department for more information. 
  • Your community may also have its own drug take-back programs available year-round. You can search this site to find an authorized DEA drop-off location near you. 
  • Many pharmacies also offer methods for safely disposing of unused medication, including onsite drop-off boxes. Ask your pharmacist what options are available. 

Disposing at home 

If a drug take-back program is not readily available, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides guidance for safely disposing of medications at home. 

  • Flushing medications: In most circumstances, you should not flush medications down the toilet since they can eventually enter our water supply. However, the FDA maintains a “flush list” of drugs that should be flushed and not disposed of in the trash. The medications on this list are commonly sought after for abuse or misuse. They have the potential for serious harm (including death) if one dose is taken inappropriately by children, pets, or other adults. Most of the medications on the flush list are opioid pain medicines, including patches, such as Duragesic (fentanyl patch), which can result in serious harm just by touching it. Your prescription will contain special instructions advising you to immediately flush unused medicine (or used patches) down the toilet, but you can always check the FDA flush list or ask your pharmacist if you are unsure (FDA-b, 2020). 
  • Disposing in the trash: For drugs not on the flush list, follow these instructions for safely disposing of your medications in the trash (FDA-a, 2021):
    • Remove your medications from their container and mix them with coffee grounds, cat litter, or another undesirable substance. This helps prevent children or animals from accidentally ingesting them.
    • Place the drug mixture into a sealable container or bag and dispose of it in the garbage. 
    • Remove or cross off any identifiable information (such as your name, address, or phone number) from your prescription bottles and throw them away. 

If you keep any medications in your home—which almost all of us do—medication safety must be a priority. Even seemingly harmless meds can cause problems if they get into the wrong hands. By taking a little time to understand the best way to store and dispose of your medications, you’ll ensure they remain safe and effective and help protect others and the environment from harm. 

References

  1. U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA)-a. (2021, April). Where and how to dispose of unused medicines. Retrieved on Sept. 13, 2021 from https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/where-and-how-dispose-unused-medicines
  2. U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA)-b. (2020, October). Drug disposal: FDA’s flush list for certain medicines. Retrieved on Sept. 14, 2021 from https://www.fda.gov/drugs/disposal-unused-medicines-what-you-should-know/drug-disposal-fdas-flush-list-certain-medicines