Fort Worth, Texas,
11:53 AM

The Importance of Safely Disposing of Expired and Unused Drugs

Twenty-one in a series.

Over the last six months, Cook Children's has released 20 articles regarding mental health, suicide in youth and teens, and resources to help young people in crisis. Recently, we spoke with experts to learn more about what families can do to help reduce the risk of suicide attempts and learned that there are a few things that start at home. 

What do you do with expired and unused prescription drugs? Do you throw them in the trash? Do you continue to take them after expiration? Or do you simply let them sit in your home?

Experts at Cook Children’s Medical Center say it is more important now than ever to dispose of unused drugs because of the alarming statistics of young people overdosing. In July, Cook Children’s reported a record number of pediatric hospitalizations for drug overdoses in 2021 compared to previous years, particularly with opioids. 

"It is a huge problem right now. We’re seeing more kids in the hospital for opioid overdoses than ever before. The vast majority of them are intentional ingestions," said Artee Gandhi, M.D., medical director of Pain Management at Cook Children’s. 

“Teens and young adults are having ‘pill parties,’ where they are taking pills from their homes, and bringing them to a party with their friends. They then put them in one large bowl and grab handfuls,” Dr. Gandhi explained. “Not only is this unsafe, but different medications have potencies after their expiration dates and you can get sick from the medication being expired.”

Experts at Cook Children’s say the best thing to do is to safely dispose of any drugs that are expired or no longer being used for their intended purposes.

Savannah Panagopoulos, a child safety, and poison prevention specialist for the Center for Children’s Health led by Cook Children’s, says there are a plethora of take-back boxes in the area that allows people to dispose of drugs safely.

“These are permanent sites, where people in the community can come and drop off drugs, to get them out of the house. Taking medications that are no longer needed or expired out of the household could significantly reduce the chance of accidental poisoning or misuse that's intentional,” Savannah said.

Savannah says “50% of potential drug and substance abuse cases start with a friend or family member giving it to someone in the home that it’s not intended for.”

She goes on to explain that only 4% are purchased from a stranger or a drug dealer.

“Not only does disposing of the drugs safely give you peace of mind, but it’s also important to dispose of them to keep our environment safe. Not flushing the drugs down the toilet, putting them in cat litter, etc.,” Dr. Gandhi said.

She also reminds families that flushing drugs down the toilet is dangerous because of the harm it can do to our water systems. Dr. Gandhi says Cook Children’s pharmacy has a take-back box, which is easy and convenient to use. The box is located inside the retail pharmacy at Cook Children's and accepts any medication, with the exception of liquids. 

“You don’t have to talk to anybody, you don’t have to see anyone. You put it in the disposable container and walk away,” she said. 

Cook Children’s also has a system in place that also texts families to remind them to take back their unused medications and to keep them out of the reach of children.

“We do this so families don’t run into a problem with children unintentionally or accidentally ingesting medication that is not safe for them,” Dr. Gandhi said.

Savannah says while most take-back locations are located in pharmacies, there are other locations, such as police stations, that are open 24 hours a day for safe disposal.

“A good rule of thumb is to take off all labels with any identifying information before you drop them off,” Savannah said. ”Although all drop-off locations are in secure areas that is something we tell people to practice for safety and privacy.”

The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) also hosts national take-back days across the country every year. In April, more than 4,000 law enforcement agencies participated, which resulted in nearly 900,000 drugs being taken out of homes and disposed of safely. The next National Take Back Day is Oct. 23, 2021. Information about national takeback days can be found here.

Both Cook Children’s experts want families to know and spread the word about this resource. It is important to know that you don’t have to wait for a medication to expire and if the medication is expired, you can drop it off before you go and get a fresh prescription.

Cook Children’s Center for Children’s Health has a page dedicated to poison prevention. The North Texas Poison Center is open 24/7 and can be reached at 1-800-222-1222. You can find information about drop-off locations in North Texas, pain management, and more.

It is important to note you cannot dispose of items such as needles, oxygen tanks, thermometers, and sharps when dropping off your medication.

Dr. Gandhi says the most important thing to remember is, if you are done taking medicine and have used it for the intended purpose, dispose of it like you would an antibiotic or anything else.

“This goes for over-the-counter medication such as Tylenol, Ibuprofen, Aleve, etc,” she said.

About the Joy Campaign

Cook Children's Joy Campaign is a communication initiative that aims to encourage hope and resilience among children and teens.

Joy stands for: Just breathe. Open up. You matter.

The number of children and teens suffering from anxiety, stress and depression is skyrocketing. Sadly, Cook Children's has seen a record number of patients attempting suicide in the past year. The Joy Campaign is a suicide prevention communication initiative led by Cook Children's to bring hope and needed resources to children and families facing struggles and dark times in their lives.

Learn more about the Joy Campaign and available mental health resources here. 

Support Cook Children's Rees-Jones Behavioral Health Center

You can help support the work being done through the Rees-Jones Behavioral Health Center at Cook Children’s by making a donation today. Visit our website by clicking here.

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