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The Medical Minute: The dangers of dated prescription drugs

Many of us are guilty of neglecting our medicine cabinet – specifically, our prescriptions. Sometimes we feel the need to hang onto them, perhaps because they were costly or “just in case.”

According to Kimberly Cimarelli, pharmacy manager at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, keeping old prescription drugs may cause more harm than good.

“Medications that are expired have passed their half-life, which leads to them being ineffective,” she said.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says taking expired medication can be dangerous. That's because the chemical composition of expired medical products can change over time, making them potentially harmful or less potent.

Also, removing expired and unused drugs from the home makes the possibility of children finding them and accidentally harming themselves or misusing them less likely.

“Another risk is that older people who may be easily confused could take the wrong medication because the unwanted or expired medication wasn't disposed of,” said Officer Rebecca Kessler of the Derry Township Police Department.

Getting rid of the drugs also eliminates the temptation to self-medicate using someone else’s prescription. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), rates of prescription drug abuse in the U.S. are growing, as are the number of accidental poisonings and overdoses due to the drugs. The DEA says many abused prescription drugs are obtained from family members and friends.

“Drug take-back events or drop boxes are a safe way to take medications that are no longer being used out of the public’s hands,” Cimarelli said.

Disposing of the drugs can also prevent people from becoming crime targets.

“Some people who keep their medications have fallen victim to those with a criminal mindset because it is much easier to steal medications from a house or person rather than a pharmacy or hospital,” Kessler said.

Additionally, expired or unwanted medications should be properly disposed.

“Unfortunately, the easiest way to get rid of unwanted or expired medications is to flush them down the toilet or simply put them in the trash. This causes the medications to end up in our water system and landfills, polluting our water and land,” Kessler said.

When medications are returned via drug take-back events or police department drop boxes, they are incinerated to protect the environment.

During the month of September, the DEA's 10th National Prescription Drug Take-Back will include events across the United States. Sites will be set up throughout communities so residents can return their unwanted, unneeded or expired prescription drugs for safe disposal. Collection locations can be found by visiting

Many police departments have permanent, secure drop boxes. The Derry Township Police Department’s drop box is located in the station lobby at 620 Clearwater Dive in Hershey and is accessible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

“All someone has to do is walk in, open the box and drop in their unwanted or expired medications,” Kessler said. “They don't have to speak with anyone.”

Generally, there restrictions on what can be disposed of at the drop boxes, such as no needles, aerosols, inhalers, liquids, ointments or creams.

More information on the proper disposal of unwanted or expired medications can be found here.

More information on Drug Take-Back events and drop box locations can be found here.

The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Articles feature the expertise of Penn State Hershey faculty physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

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