If you were to look in your kitchen or bathroom cabinet, the chances are you’d find some unused medicine. Maybe you recovered from surgery more quickly than you expected, and didn’t take all the strong painkillers your doctor prescribed. Or perhaps you took a medicine so long ago that it’s expired, the cardboard packaging is disintegrating, and you can’t be certain what it was for in the first place. What now?
Stockpiling medicines at home can be risky, not just for you but for your family and pets. And disposing of them in the garbage or down the toilet carries risks too.
Our new research, published in the Australian Health Review, shows that both practices are common. And few people know how to safely dispose of unwanted or expired medicines.
How big is the problem?
Pharmacists dispensed 208 million government-subsidised prescriptions in the 2015-16 financial year. And in a 2015 national survey, eight out of ten adults said they had used at least one non-prescription medicine in the previous month.
Our research showed that almost two out of three people (60%) surveyed said they had unwanted medicines at home, and one-third (33%) of these medicines had expired.
Medicine can be unused or left over for a number of reasons. Perhaps we decide not to take what our doctor prescribed, or we feel better so we think we no longer need it, or the doctor changes our medicine and prescribes something else.
Keeping medicines to use for reoccurring conditions, like migraines, is appropriate. But keeping antibiotics to use for a different infection can lead to treatment failure if those antibiotics do not target the new infection. When we use antibiotics incorrectly, bacteria can also change to become more resistant to treatment.
Stockpiling medicines at home can also be a safety problem. Children or pets can accidentally eat or drink them, older people can become confused about which ones to take, and medicines can lose their effectiveness or become toxic after their expiry date.
One recent US study found that most opioids prescribed after surgery were unused, and not stored or disposed of safely.
A nation of hoarders
To find out what people do with their unused medicines, we surveyed more than 4,300 Australians.
Most people (75%) said they kept medicines in case they needed them in the future. Other reasons included not wanting to waste money, not knowing how to dispose of them, intending to give them to family and friends, or forgetting the medicines were there.