Cancer treatment and its side effects can bring a lot of medications.
But what should you do with unused or expired medications?
Whether they’re chemotherapy drugs (such as vismodegib), high-potency pain relievers
(considered controlled substances), or drugs that target
specific defects on cancer cells (vemurafenib),
it’s important to know how to properly dispose of these medicines.
“The dangers of having unused or expired medications lying around
the house are well-documented,” says Lori Bertrand, retail pharmacy
manager at MD Anderson. “Every day,
parents head to the emergency room or contact poison control centers
because their children have accidentally ingested medications intended
for someone else.”
Here’s what you should know about disposing of your unused or
How to find an authorized collection location
The first step in disposing of unused prescriptions is to identify
an authorized collection location in your area. You can find one using
this search tool on the U.S. Drug Enforcement
Administration’s (DEA) website or by searching for “authorized
takeback locations” online.
The DEA also sponsors a National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day event twice a year, usually on
Saturdays in April and October. During these events, you can drop off
your unused and expired medications at police stations, fire stations
and other local civic centers designated as official drop-off sites.
Any type of unused or expired medication — including
over-the-counter drugs such as cough syrup or antihistamines, and even
veterinary medicines — can be dropped off on these days for proper
disposal by law-enforcement personnel.
Bringing prescriptions back to MD Anderson
With the exception of controlled substances, such as codeine,
oxycodone and tramadol, medications issued by our pharmacies may also
be returned to MD Anderson year-round. Any
MD Anderson outpatient pharmacy location
(Main Building, Floors 2 and 10; or in the Mays Clinic) can handle
these returns, but patients and caregivers should plan to stay long
enough for a pharmacy staff member to sort through the medications
“Our pharmacies do accept some medications, but we can’t keep any
controlled substances,” says Pharmacy Resident Devlin Smith. “So
patients and caregivers will need to spend a few minutes here. That
way, we can look through their medicines and return any we can’t accept.”
How to dispose of medicines at home
In cases where no authorized collection location is nearby, or a
“take-back day” is still months away, you can also safely dispose of
unused and expired medications at home.
Most medications can be sealed in a plastic bag with something
unpalatable — such as used cat litter, sawdust or old coffee grounds —
and discarded in the regular household trash. But some prescriptions,
such as high-dose pain relievers, should be flushed down the toilet to prevent drug abuse or
accidental ingestion by children. Prescriptions should also never be
given to anyone else.
“People need to be very, very cautious, especially with opioids,”
Smith adds. “Some patients have developed really high tolerances for
painkillers, so for them, it’s fine, but that dose could kill another
person if they were exposed to it.”
“The chemotherapy and pain medications taken by many MD Anderson patients are particularly
dangerous,” Bertrand adds, “and great care must be taken to prevent
them from falling into the wrong hands.”
Disposing of other types of medicines (such as birth control pills,
antibiotics, or mood-altering chemicals) by flushing them is not
advised, as traces of pharmaceuticals have been found in both water
supplies and wildlife.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by