Leftover Prescription Medicine: Dangers to Children

Leftover Prescription Medicine: Dangers to Children


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Experts say pill bottles can be an enticing danger for children. David Smart/Stocksy
  • A new survey indicates that many parents have leftover prescription medications in their homes.
  • Many parents also keep over-the-counter medications past their expiration date.
  • Experts say these pills can pose a danger to children if accidentally ingested or administered improperly.

Next time you think about making your home safe for kids, you may want to take a quick rummage through your medicine cabinet, a new survey suggests.

Almost half of the parents surveyed say that they have leftover prescription medication at home and many keep over-the-counter (OTC) medication around past its expiration date, according to a C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health at the University of Michigan Health.

The survey also reported that most parents – three in five – were more careful about disposing of leftover prescription medication than OTC medication. However, both can pose a danger to curious children.

“We found that it’s common for parents to keep medicines long after they are expired or no longer needed, which creates an unnecessary health risk for children,” Sarah Clark, MPH, a co-director of the Mott Poll, said in a press release. “Younger children getting into medicine in the home is a major source of unintentional poisonings. For older children, access to these medicines brings risk of experimentation, diversion to peers, or other intentional misuse.”

“Children are smart and exploratory by nature. Leftover medications can look like candy and young children often explore by putting objects in their mouths,” said Dr. Kelly Johnson-Arbor, a medical toxicologist who is co-medical director and interim executive director at the National Capital Poison Center in Washington, D.C.

“Even leftover medications that have lost potency can still be deadly when consumed by young children,” she told Healthline. “Some medications, including certain heart and diabetes medications, can cause life-threatening symptoms in children after consuming just a single pill.”

A simple solution for limiting children’s access to medication is to keep it safely locked away.

However, the effectiveness of a drug past its expiration date is also an issue.

For instance, more than half of parents surveyed believed that OTC medication is still effective past its expiration date, any time between one month to a year after its expiration. Experts say that could be true, but there’s no guarantee.

Less than four in 10 parents said it was never safe to give their children expired medicine.

“Federal law requires that medications contain an expiration date. While many drugs (both prescription and non-prescription) may be effective after the listed expiration date, medications are not tested to determine whether they actually are effective after their expiration date,” Johnson-Arbor said. “Some medications can deteriorate in quality, be susceptible to bacterial contamination, or become less effective if not stored properly or if kept for too long after their expiration date.”

Aside from the risk of accidental ingestion, keeping expired medication around can also mean that parents are forced to make a difficult choice when their child is sick.

“Parents may not realize that medicine is expired until they need it to address their child’s symptoms,” Clark said. “At that point, parents must decide if they will give the expired medicine to their child or go out to purchase new medicine.”

In many cases, the cost is also a factor that entices parents to keep expired medication around.

“Some people may keep expired medications to save on out-of-pocket prescription costs or doctor visit co-pays,” Johnson-Arbor noted. “Finally, newer or non-generic prescription drugs are often quite expensive and people may keep older or expired versions of these drugs to avoid spending additional money on refills.”

There is also some confusion on how to dispose of different medications properly.

“Some of the main reasons people keep expired medications are the difficulty with disposing of medications and the significant effort required to obtain prescription medications in the first place,” said Shawn Patrick Griffin, PharmD, a health sciences assistant clinical professor at the University of California Irvine School of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences.

“There is often not clear guidance or a specific process for discarding medications and sometimes people don’t always realize the risks associated with keeping leftover medications around,” Griffin told Healthline.

For instance, three-quarters of survey respondents did not know that certain prescription drugs should be mixed with kitty litter or coffee grounds before being put in the trash.

Many pharmacies will also take back prescription medications to dispose of them safely. The federal Drug Enforcement Agency also lists participating locations for their National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day on their website, where people can bring expired medication to dispose of safely.

Certain drugs should be flushed down the toilet to prevent accidental misuse, the agency says.

“However, this should only be done if a take-back program is not readily available and after close consultation with a pharmacist and/or local government officials,” Griffin said. “Inappropriate disposal can cause environmental contamination and accidental exposure for others.”

For more questions about how to deal with expired medications, parents can consult their doctor or pharmacist or contact Poison Control in the United States at poison.org or by phone at 1-800-222-1222.



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