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What do I do with leftover pills?

Q: I had surgery recently and was prescribed pain medication. I didn’t have much pain, so I only took the drugs twice. I'm completely healed; what do I do with the leftover pills?

Great question! Many people have leftover or expired medication around the house. But it’s not a good idea to leave any expired or unused medication lying around as there are a few risks: 1) misuse and/or abuse of the drug, 2) the expired drug can be confused for the drugs you should be taking, and; 3) the drug could be harmful if taken inadvertently, for example, it could duplicate the effects of, or interact with, another drug being used.

There has been a lot in the news about opioid pain medications, and like all pain medication, they are a good example of drugs that should always be removed from the home and disposed of properly when no longer needed. Unused opioid pain medications left in a bathroom or kitchen cupboard are easily accessible to teenagers who may be curious about experimenting with drugs or children who think the pills are candy. This can result in addiction, overdose, and even death.

The best, and most convenient, way to dispose of your unused or expired medication is to return it to your pharmacy or your local “take-back” program as soon as treatment has been discontinued or the product has expired. In Canada, you can return medication to any pharmacy any time. Pharmacies participate in a national health product stewardship program that enables and supports safe medication return and disposal processes. You can check details about the program in your province here.

Since different types of medications (i.e., pills, patches, inhalers, liquids, etc.) may require different ways of handling for disposal, pharmacies ensure returned medications are properly separated from their regular stock, sorted based on the type of medication and disposal procedure necessary, and sent to a disposal facility where drugs are destroyed.

It’s not recommended that you flush any drugs down the toilet or sink, and throwing drugs in the garbage isn’t ideal either because drugs can leak into soil and water creating an environmental hazard. And never give your unused medication to anyone else; what is prescribed specifically for you can be dangerous to others.

Here are some tips for handling unused or expired medication:

  • Return oral medications in their original packaging. If you don’t have your original container because you put your pills in an organizer, you can empty the pills into a small zip lock bag.
  • Keep liquids in their original bottle.
  • Dispose of injectable medications (i.e., syringes) in a “sharps” container, then take the container to the pharmacy. (You can buy sharps containers at the pharmacy, or sometimes they are available for free if you ask your pharmacist.) Ensure the sharps container is securely closed before returning to the pharmacy to avoid accidental needle punctures.
  • Do a regular “medication clean up” of your medicine cabinet, cupboards, and drawers, looking for over-the-counter drugs, natural health products, and homeopathic products as well as prescription medication.

If you live in a remote area without a nearby pharmacy or can’t get to one for other reasons, Health Canada provides instructions here for disposing of drugs in the garbage as a last resort. Or you can contact your local municipality for advice.