By Rocco Orlando III MD
Hartford HealthCare Chief Medical Officer

A prescription drug can provide relief in the wake of illness or injury. Although most of us try to follow the label instructions, we often don’t finish all the pills. Perhaps some unpleasant side effects kicked in – or the pain’s gone, so we stopped. If you’re like many Americans, your medicine cabinet is stocked with old prescriptions – a museum of past ailments. But, while the illness is long gone, these drugs remain potent and can be hazardous in the wrong hands.

What’s left in the bottles? A 2016 study by Geisinger Health System found that the majority of unused pills are pain medications (15%), followed by prescriptions for hypertension (14%), antibiotics (11%) and psychiatric disorders (9%). When someone other than the patient takes any pill, it’s a problem. This is especially the case with children. Each year, 60,000 youngsters are taken to emergency departments after having consumed a family member’s medication.

Leftover opioids are especially dangerous. They are part of a drug supply fueling a nationwide opioid-use-disorder crisis that is taking 130 lives a day, on average. Prescription opioids have become the primary gateway to addiction, and some of those drugs were intended for others. The Connecticut Department of Public Health notes that adolescents get most of the prescription drugs they abuse from friends and family – often secretly. Fortunately, teen opioid use has declined nationally in recent years. This is likely due in part to greater adult awareness, new approaches to pain management, better physician education and increased home drug disposal.

The best way to dispose of unused or expired drugs is to participate in a “take-back” program that will handle disposal. The federal Drug Enforcement Administration, often working with local law-enforcement agencies, sets up periodic, temporary collection sites. Also, there are some permanent drug-return sites (“collection boxes”) for disposal of unused drugs. You can search for Connecticut sites here. If there is no convenient “take-back” option, the federal Food and Drug Administration has identified a list of drugs (mainly opioids) that should quickly be flushed down a toilet or a drain because of the overdose risk they pose. The FDA maintains the current list and offers additional disposal information on a helpful webpage.

Many drugs can be thrown in regular garbage if mixed with unpalatable substances like cat litter or coffee grounds. Hartford HealthCare offers a free drug-disposal kit for unused drugs that neutralizes the active chemicals and makes them safe for landfills. For more information, see our “Be Rxesponsible” program webpage.

YouTube video

We live in an era of wonder drugs, but misdirected and misused prescriptions are a public health threat. Drugs that we no longer need have to be disposed of quickly and properly to ensure they don’t end up doing more harm than good.