Leftover Medicine

What is leftover medicine?

Many people get prescriptions for various medicines and end up not finishing the bottle. These leftover medicines are often stashed in a cabinet and forgotten. We also often have old bottles of over-the-counter medicines that have expired, like cough syrup or aspirin.  These leftover medicines can pose a danger to children if they get into them. Children who take old medicines can have a variety of symptoms, sometimes severe enough to need emergency help.   

What should I do with leftover medicine?   

Ideally, leftover or expired medicine should not be thrown in the trash or flushed down a toilet. Instead, both prescription and over-the-counter medicines should be handed over to an authorized collector to be safely destroyed.  The Virginia Board of Pharmacy maintains a list of authorized collectors.  Every April 22 is National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, when various localities will have collection sites where you can drop off medicines. You can locate a collection site near you at the US Department of Justice National Prescription Drug Take Back Day page.

Some prescription medicines are more dangerous and should be disposed of immediately if they are no longer needed. Your patient insert will tell you if your medicine should be immediately disposed of, but these medicines are also found on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “flush list”.  When you no longer need these medicines, you should immediately give them to an authorized collector.  If that is not possible, you should immediately get rid of these drugs by flushing them.   

For medicines not on the “flush list”, if you cannot return them to an authorized collector, they can be disposed of in household trash. The FDA gives guidelines for how to do this.    

How can I keep my child out of medicines?

Medicines, including over-the-counter medicines, should be kept out of the reach of children and in original packaging with child resistant caps. If you have a medicine that people often abuse, such as oxycodone or fentanyl, consider storing it in a locked cabinet or purchasing a lockbox or small safe. These medicines can be especially dangerous if taken accidentally, and older kids may look for them and take them on purpose.  

What should I do if my child takes leftover medicine?

If your child takes leftover medicine and appears seriously ill, get emergency help by calling 911.  If your child has no or mild symptoms, you can call the National Poison Help number at 1-800-222-1222.  Keep this number saved in your contacts list or posted near your phone. The experts at the Poison Control Centers can help you determine whether your child needs to see a doctor or if you can treat them safely at home.    

If your child or another family member has been intentionally taking medicines not prescribed to them, you can find help at FindTreatment.gov. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a page on Parent and Caregiver Resources.

Where can I get more information about how to handle leftover medicine?


Updated 2023