Be Smart About Medication Storage and Disposal

By Victoria Serrano Adams, PharmD, Scripps Health

When used as directed, prescription medications can save lives. However, if they are used incorrectly, they also can be deadly.

Improper use of medications—whether accidental or intentional—can be extremely dangerous. Brightly colored capsules or tiny tablets can look like candy to young children. Depending on the drug, even just a few pills can have serious consequences. An overdose of commonly prescribed sedatives or the anti-anxiety medications, such as Xanax® or Ativan®, can cause extreme drowsiness, confusion, muscle weakness, coma, or death. Vicodin®, often prescribed to treat pain, can slow heart rate and breathing to dangerously low levels.

Children are not the only ones at risk. The use of drugs like Vicodin®, Ativan® and others not as prescribed—or without a prescription at all— is a serious and growing problem among both adults and adolescents.

That’s why it is vitally important to ensure your prescription medications don’t get into the wrong hands. Store all medications in a safe place; if you have any concerns about kids or adults finding them, keep them in a locked cabinet or box. Avoid potentially dangerous mix-ups by keeping drugs in their original, clearly labeled containers. Using a travel-size aspirin container to store prescription painkillers, for example, can have serious consequences if someone with a mild headache is looking for aspirin.

Do not share medications, even if family members or friends have the same symptoms. Many conditions with similar symptoms require vastly different treatment. In addition, a medication prescribed for one person can be dangerous if given to another person who has a different medical history, medication allergies or risk of side effects.Sharing prescription medications is very risky, and can be illegal.

Maintain a record of your prescriptions and the quantities you should have on hand so that you know when pills are missing. When you order refills, check with the pharmacy to ensure no one else has refilled the prescription, and ensure only the patient (or a parent) is authorized to order and pick up refills.

Examine unfamiliar packages that come to your home via the mail or a delivery service, especially if they are unmarked or from another country. Unfortunately, the explosion of unregulated Internet pharmacies has made it relatively easy to order medications online, including controlled substances, without a prescription.

Check to make sure prescription medications are not expired or damaged. All prescription drugs have an expiration date on the label, after which they can lose effectiveness or even become harmful. Expired tetracycline, for example, can cause a deadly syndrome resulting in kidney damage. Take inventory of your medicines every few months and dispose of any that are expired. Also discard any medications that are discolored, crumbly, or powdery, regardless of the expiration date.

Finally, dispose of drugs safely. Don’t just toss them into the trash, where children, animals and anyone looking for discarded drugs can find them. While flushing unwanted medications down the toilet or sink drain may seem like a safer alternative, it isn’t. Dissolved medications can contaminate drinking water, be ingested by the public, and harm natural aquatic habitats.

Instead, take unwanted medications to designated collection sites, where they will be disposed of according to state and federal laws. On Saturday, April 28, Scripps will be collecting unwanted and expired medications as part of the countywide Prescription Take Back Day. Medications will be accepted with no questions asked; however, sharps (needles) cannot be accepted. Drop off your medications between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. at any of the following Scripps locations:

•Scripps Coastal Medical Center Carlsbad
2176 Salk Ave., Carlsbad

•Scripps Clinic Rancho Bernardo
15004 Innovation Drive, San Diego

•Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas
354 Santa Fe Drive, Encinitas

•Scripps Green Hospital
10666 N. Torrey Pines Rd., La Jolla

•Scripps Mercy Hospital Chula Vista
435 H Street, Chula Vista

Additional drop off sites are available at Can’t make it on April 28? The San Diego Sheriff’s Department offers several locations in the community where the public can drop off unused drugs for proper disposal anytime of year. Visit to find a location near you.

Victoria Serrano Adams, PharmD, is a director of pharmacy with Scripps Health. “To Your Health” is brought to you by the physicians and staff of Scripps. For more information or a physician referral, please call 1-800-SCRIPPS.