National Drug Take-Back Day Helps Us Safely Dispose of Unused Medication

Spring is a good time to rid your house of clutter. But in the rush to shed excess clothing and knickknacks, we often overlook some of the most important things that need to be disposed of: unused prescription drugs. 

To help make your spring cleaning of the medicine cabinet a success, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is sponsoring National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day on April 26. The DEA’s website lists locations throughout the country where you can drop off unused or expired medications from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on that day for safe disposal.

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Take-Back Day Lets Us Dispose of Dangerous Drugs

Most of us have at some point been guilty of stockpiling our own little pharmacy of leftover medications. The longer we hold on to these unneeded drugs, though, the more likely it is that somebody will be harmed by them, either through intentional misuse or accidental ingestion.

“It’s important for people to use that Take-Back Day as an opportunity to get rid of medicines that are lying around their house, or medicines that they don’t use anymore,” said Dr. Carmen Catizone, executive director of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. “The reason ... is that those medications sometimes find themselves in the hands of children or other people that are trying to abuse those drugs.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 100 people die from a drug overdose each day in the U.S., and most of the deaths are caused by prescription drugs. Although any medication can be abused, some are more likely to cause problems.

“The Take-Back Day is for all prescription drugs, but the abusive drugs are usually the controlled substances. Those are medications people take for pain, sometimes for anxiety, sometimes for sleep,” Catizone said. “Those medications are particularly dangerous—people become addicted to them very easily and they can harm people much quicker than regular prescription drugs that you may take for diabetes, high blood pressure, or other diseases or symptoms.”

In particular, prescription painkillers are ripe for abuse, partly because of a 300 percent increase in their sale since 1999, according to the CDC. In 2010, more than 12 million people reported using prescription painkillers for a nonmedical reason. These drugs were involved in 14,800 overdose deaths in 2008, more than heroin and cocaine combined.

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Where Do Abused Medications Come From?

Most prescription drugs involved in overdoses were originally prescribed by a physician, rather than stolen from a pharmacy. However, more than three-fourths of people who abuse prescription painkillers are using someone else’s drugs.

recent study shows that more than half of these misused painkillers were obtained for free from a relative or friend. Another 12 percent were bought from a relative or friend, and 5 percent were taken from a relative or friend without permission. 

To prevent this kind of prescription drug abuse, it’s important to store your medications properly while you are still using them and to dispose of them properly as soon as you no longer need them.

“In order to make sure that others don’t have access to your medications, keep them in a place that’s outside of the public common areas,” Catizone said. “A lot of times, people like to keep them in their kitchens, but a lot of people go through the kitchens. Keep them in a cabinet, away from those areas. Keep track of the medication—how many tablets or pills you’ve taken.”

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Saving Medications for Later Is a Recipe for Trouble

Given the price of many prescription drugs, some people are tempted to hold on to unused medications so that they, a friend, or a relative can use them at a later time. 

“It’s really not good to do that,” Catizone said. “The medications can lose their potency, and also, by sharing medications, it may be the wrong medicine for that patient.”

Also, antibiotics should be taken for the full number of days prescribed by a doctor, meaning that patients should take every pill they are given. This decreases the risk that bacteria will become resistant to the antibiotics, which could make the drugs less effective in the future.

Catizone's organization runs a website called AWARxE.org, which lists permanent locations for drug disposal programs in the Get Local section.

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