Hanging onto unused prescription drugs? Why docs say throw them out

While picking up your prescription at the pharmacy about 10 years from now, you may see a difference in the variety of drugs and their price tags. Getty Images

Do you stash unused and expired prescription drugs in your medicine cabinet to use later on? Canadian doctors are urging you to break this habit.

Hanging on to to unused drugs could be risky: they could be used to self-medicate, accidentally taken or they could fall into the hands of your kids. Antibiotics, painkillers, stimulants – like ADHD drugs, and anti-depressants are the most common prescribed medications that Canadians tend to keep, according to Dr. Peter Wu, of Toronto General Hospital and the University of Toronto.

“Unused prescription drugs are an underappreciated source of danger. Drugs can be unused either because a patient feels better and no longer feels they require them or because they needed less than the doctor prescribed,” Wu told Global News.

“Opioid pain relievers, in particular, are very dangerous to keep if no longer needed given the potential dangers with misuse,” he warned.

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There isn’t concrete data on how prevalent pill-stashing is in Canada but U.S. studies suggest that over half of Americans keep unused prescription meds at home, Wu said.

May 10 is National Prescription Drug Drop-Off Day when Canadians can drop off their unused and expired prescription drugs at pharmacies. Last year, over two tonnes of unused meds were turned in.

“It’s evident that there is a significant amount being kept in homes,” Wu said. To mark the awareness week, Wu penned a commentary published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal along with doctors at Sunnybrook Hospital.

Read the full commentary here.

Another concern is“pill parties” or “Skittles parties” where teens pool together prescription pills and use them as recreational drugs. Opioids were the most common drug used and they were often prescribed to a parent or sibling.

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Taking expired drugs isn’t the first priority – Wu says he’s most concerned with the medications falling into the wrong hands. But depending on how long it’s been expired, the medication could have reduced effectiveness.

(Harvard Medical School points to FDA research that suggests that over the counter drugs are good to use even a decade after the expiration date. Still, doctors recommend that old and expired medication should be safely thrown out.)

Wu said that Canadians may be hanging onto drugs because they don’t know how to safely get rid of them.

Return them to the local pharmacy, or mix them with coffee grinds or cat litter and place them in the garbage.

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