The Dangers of Unused Prescription Drugs


Common unused prescription medications include pain killers, medications for hypertension, antibiotics, and psychiatric disorders.

Failing to properly dispose of unfinished medications can have dire consequences.

A new study conducted by Geisinger Health System and published in the Journal of the American Pharmacists Association used insurance claims and telephone survey data from Medicare Advantage members with Part D coverage to determine which medications are most frequently left unused by patients.

Of the 247 different prescription medications reportedly left unused, the majority were pain drugs (15%), followed by medications for hypertension (14%), antibiotics (11%), and psychiatric disorders (9%).

Just 11% of unused prescription drugs were disposed of via drug take-back programs, while 55% were left in the medicine cabinet, 14% were thrown in the trash, and 9% were flushed down the toilet.

John Jones, RPh, vice president of enterprise pharmacy at Geisinger, told Pharmacy Times that the reasons patients don’t take all of their prescribed medication could depend on the type of condition being treated.

“For medications used for diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, patients may stop taking their medications because of adverse effects,” he explained. “Many patients who receive pain medications after surgery or dental procedures may find that they do not need all of the prescribed medication. In other cases, the dose of the prescription may change, leaving unused medication left over.”

Whatever the reason, holding onto drugs that are no longer needed could pose serious risks to other family members, as well as the environment.

“Abuse of medicine among teenagers is a growing problem, especially since many of these kids don’t believe that prescription drugs are harmful,” explained senior study investigator Eric Wright, PharmD, MPH, in a press release. “Easy access to parents’ and grandparents’ leftover medications is just throwing gasoline on the fire.”

Meanwhile, more than 60,000 young children are taken to the emergency room each year after ingesting a family member’s medication.

With respect to the environment, the FDA no longer recommends flushing drugs down the toiler because sewage treatment plants lack the capacity to remove pharmaceuticals and personal care products’ residue.

Because disposing of medications in a timely and safe matter may save lives, Dr. Jones said it’s critical for health care providers to speak with patients about the risks involved with having unused medications in their home.

“The more conversations regarding this subject, the better,” he explained. “The conversation could occur when patients are picking up prescriptions in the retail pharmacy setting, at the time of discharge from the hospital, or when a patient is seen in the clinic by a primary care physician and/or the clinic staff.”

Pharmacists can help promote proper medication disposal by offering related counseling points to patients every time they pick up a prescription.

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