After the Ouch: Safe Disposal of Medications


There is not any real surprise that having an injury or surgery hurts. Often medications are prescribed to help alleviate the pain. There is a variety of types of medications used to help control pain, including opioids, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAIDs), non-opioids like acetaminophen, and more. These medications can help you feel more comfortable, move sooner, and recover faster.

However, after you begin to feel better, keeping unused and unsecured medications presents a potential risk for patients and those in their lives. Studies have shown that the majority of abused prescription drugs were obtained from family and friends, including from the home medicine cabinet (1). The greatest rate of overdoses in Rhode Island (2020) was between the ages of 35-44 years old, followed very closely behind are those ages 45-54 years old. Abuse and misuse of prescription medications is on the rise in the ages 65 and over. This often goes unrecognized in the older adults and is confused for other health related issues. In 2020, 27% of deaths related to overdose in Rhode Island were from prescription medications (2).

So, what happens with the unused medications? Many people do not know what to do with their controlled substance prescription medications and just keep them stored in their medicine cabinets. Unknown by many, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) hosts an annual National Prescription Drug Take Back Day. Rhode Island had their 21st annual event on October 29, 2022. In addition to DEA’s National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, prescription drugs can be disposed of at any of the 11,000 DEA authorized collectors throughout the country, at any time throughout the year. To find the one closest to you, click this link. Listed will be the location for drop off, the address, the distance to location and a map. Not all pharmacies are authorized collectors and only those that are authorized will take back your medications. Most police departments are authorized collection sites where you can bring the medications anonymously.

If an authorized collector site is not readily available to you for the disposal of your medications, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has put out an approved “Flush List”. These are medications that have been approved to be flushed down the toilet. Flushing the unused or unwanted medications will decrease the risk of potential harm of the medications. You can look online at the approved “Flush List” on the FDA website.   Most controlled substances, such as narcotics, are on the approved list. Also, the pamphlet that comes with your medications should list if it is an approved flushable medication.

There were concerns raised about the medications getting into the environment and the water supplies. The FDA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency take the concerns of flushing certain medicines in the environment seriously. Still, there has been no sign of environmental effects caused by flushing recommended drugs (3).

What happens if your medication is not on the “Flush List”? If your medication is not on the approved “Flush List” than you can still dispose of them at home. The recommendations are that you mix the prescription medications with an unappealing substance, such as dirt or kitty litter. Then place the medications in a sealed container or bag to dispose of it in your household trash. The bottles that your medications came in should have any identifying information removed or blacked out and thrown away into your household trash or recycling.

The risk of leaving unsecured controlled substances can be deadly. Remove the risk before it can do harm by securing or disposing of your medications appropriately.


1 Prescription Drug Misuse Among Older Adults Fact Sheet - Rhode Island Prevention Resource Center (RIPRC)
2 SUDORS Dashboard: Fatal Overdose Data | Drug Overdose | CDC Injury Center
3 Where and How to Dispose of Unused Medicines | FDA
4 RIDOH Drug Overdose Surveillance Fatalities (
5 19th Annual National Prescription Drug Take Back Day | USAO-RI | Department of Justice
6 2022 RI's Permanent Disposal Sites for Take Back Day 10.29.2022.pdf