Ask Your Pharmacist

May 10, 2018

I’m cleaning out my medicine cabinets and I cannot believe how much old medication my family has. What is the best thing for me to do with it?


Unused medication and its proper disposal is a challenge we face in Canada. Some recent estimates show that up to $8 billion in medication goes unused each year in Canada. Unused medication can add up quickly, and it’s important to dispose of it properly so it won’t fall into the wrong hands or become an environmental hazard.

Once a medication leaves the pharmacy counter, it cannot be reused. The medication you purchase at your pharmacy has been heavily tested to ensure you are buying a product that meets the standard of quality set out by Health Canada. Drugs are stored and maintained according to drug manufacturer’s specifications that ensure this quality, but unfortunately, once the drug leaves the counter we can’t say for certain that the medication hasn’t been tampered with or compromised.

Prescription painkillers are commonly unused medications as people use it for pain when needed, and once they aren’t needed, they aren’t used. I mention these in particular as they can be a target for theft as addiction to opiate painkillers continues to plague our country and is a growing concern amongst our teenage population. Also, that type of medication is highly toxic. It would take very little of a strong opiate like oxycodone or fentanyl to be lethal if accidentally consumed by a child.

Do not throw out your medications or flush them down the toilet. Unused or expired medications that are improperly disposed of can enter water sources and other areas of the environment. Unwanted medications stored in the home may also lead to unintentional poisonings and/or access to medications which may result in addiction or overdose.

Unlike other provinces, New Brunswick does not have a province-wide medication disposal program, but patients can bring their unused medications including over-the-counter medication and natural health products to their local pharmacy for proper disposal. Pharmacies offer this service voluntarily and bear the cost for collection, storage and disposal.

Reducing medication waste is in everyone best interest. Too often, patients will fill their prescriptions for 90 days only to discover after 10 days or so, that they are having unmanageable side effects. When a physician or pharmacist switches the patient to a different medication, the patient is still left with hundreds of unused pills. Several other provinces have trial prescription programs for new prescriptions that encourage the dispensing of small quantities of expensive medications with known high incidences of side effects. Many drug plans also now recommend a 14 to 30-day drug trial before dispensing a higher quantity to ensure the drug is tolerated.

Be sure to talk to your own pharmacist if you have any questions about unused medications in your cabinet.

Jared Mactavish (BSc., Pharm) is a pharmacist in Saint John. His opinions expressed in this newspaper are published for educational and informational purposes only, and are not intended as a diagnosis, treatment or as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Send your questions to