Spring Cleaning For Your Medicine Cabinet

What's in your medicine cabinet? Perhaps you have a few leftover pain pills, half a bottle of cough syrup, or even an entire cache of controlled substances from a loved one who has died.

It's a common and potentially dangerous problem according to Andrea Bryant, Pharm.D., MBA, MHA, and Executive Director for Pharmacy Business Operations at VUMC. "We know that 60-70% of prescription drug abuse starts with medications obtained from family and friends — often found in the family medicine cabinet," says Bryant.

Abuse isn't the only risk, however. Medication given to a friend could be harmful to them. Children and pets can swallow medications or chew medicated patches - like nicotine and fentanyl - with dangerous or even fatal results. Even taking your own expired medicine is not safe.

So how should one dispose of unwanted medication safely? Can it be returned to a pharmacy, thrown in the trash, or even flushed down the toilet or sink?

"Flushing is not recommended because of potential environmental effects," says Mark Sullivan, Pharm.D., MBA, and Executive Director of Pharmacy Operations at VUMC. "You could put them in the trash, sealed in a plastic bag mixed with something like kitty litter, to send to a landfill, but even this isn't ideal." Landfill drugs can leach into the ground and may present an environmental hazard.

Sullivan and Bryant agree that the best way to dispose of unwanted medications is to have them professionally destroyed through a pharmacy take-back program since many pharmacies now have safe and eco-friendly medication disposal programs. While pharmacy staff cannot touch the medications you wish to discard, they can help you place them in a drug collection kiosk where they are stored before being securely routed to an incineration plant.

Kiosks accept human and veterinary medications in pill, liquid, or patch form. "The only things we can't accept are sharps and inhalers," says Bryant. Any personal information on the medication is protected throughout the process and destroyed with the medication.

Here's where to find kiosks for disposing of unwanted medications:

  • All Vanderbilt retail pharmacy locations: The Vanderbilt Clinic, Children's Hospital, Medical Center East, and One Hundred Oaks
  • Select Walgreens pharmacies: Nashville (3130 Clarksville Pike & 5555 Edmondson Pike), Hendersonville (198 E Main St) and Murfreesboro (106 W Northfield Blvd)
  • Metro Nashville police headquarters and many police precincts - find them with the interactive Unwanted Pharmaceutical Take Back Map
  • CVS and many independent pharmacies also have programs to mail back unwanted medications. Ask your pharmacist about these.

If medication disposal has you stumped, your pharmacist is always happy to help. So roll up your sleeves and clean out that medicine cabinet today!