Many children live in homes with leftover prescription drugs, survey finds

Many children are living in homes with unused prescription drugs and expired drugs, according to a new national survey.

Nearly half of parents say they have leftover prescription drugs at home, according to the National Child Health Survey from CS Mott Children’s Hospital at University of Michigan Health.

Four out of five parents report throwing away over-the-counter medication after the expiration date.

We have found that it is common for parents to store medicines long after they are expired or no longer needed, creating an unnecessary health risk for children.

Young children entering home medicine are a major source of unintentional poisonings. For older children, access to these drugs carries the risk of experimentation, diversion to peers, or other intentional abuse.”

Sarah Clark, MPH, Co-director of Mott Poll

The nationally representative poll was based on 2,023 responses from parents of children 18 and under who were surveyed between August and September 2022.

Less than half of parents think over-the-counter medicines are less effective after their expiry date, while one in five think they are unsafe.

“Parents may not realize the medicine is out of date until they need it to treat their child’s symptoms,” Clark said. “At this point, parents have to decide whether they will give the expired medicine to their child or go out to buy new medicine.”

More than a third of parents say it is never okay to give their child expired medicine. But one in three parents think it’s okay to do it up to three months after the expiration date, and about the same number say it would be OK after six months or more.

“The expiry date is the manufacturer’s guarantee that a drug is completely safe and effective; over time, the drug will lose its effectiveness,” Clark said. “Parents who plan to give their child medication well past its expiry date should consider how well it will work.”

Proper disposal of medications

More than three in five parents say they are more careful when disposing of leftover prescription medicine than over-the-counter medicine. Most also believe that disposing of expired or leftover medicines properly is important to prevent children from getting into medicines and to protect the environment.

Yet many parents struggle to figure out how to get rid of them. Nearly three-quarters say they don’t know which medications should be mixed with coffee grounds or kitty litter and one in seven have flushed medication down the toilet.

The safest choice, Clark said, is to drop off the drugs at a permanent collection site at a doctor’s office, pharmacy or hospital, or at a community site in conjunction with the US National Drug Take-Back Day. Drug Enforcement Administration.

“Unused and expired medicines are a public safety issue and pose health risks to children,” Clark said. “It’s important that parents dispose of them properly when they are no longer needed to reduce the risk of illness to children as well as the negative impact on the environment.”

How to properly protect children from unused drugs

  • Limit the amount of medication you take home. Avoid buying over-the-counter medications in excess of your family’s needs. For medications prescribed for “as needed” use, such as painkillers, consider filling only part of the prescription and returning to the pharmacy for additional doses only if needed.
  • Store over-the-counter and prescription medications in their original packaging that includes dosage and expiration information. Check the expiration dates of your child’s over-the-counter medications twice a year, especially before allergy and/or flu season.
  • Lock out or at least watch certain medications that can be misused, including painkillers and sleeping pills, especially if there are older children in the home.
  • Safely dispose of unused or expired medicines by dropping them off at a permanent collection site (such as a local hospital, pharmacy, or doctor’s office) or at a periodic take-back event. Some pharmacies also offer mail-in return options.
  • If you are unable to return medicines to a collection site, a secondary option is to dispose of them in the household waste. Medicines should be placed in a plastic bag, dissolved with water, and mixed with kitty litter or coffee grounds to make them unappealing to children or pets. Sealing the bag will prevent the medicine from leaking.
  • Avoid flushing expired or unused medications down the toilet or sink, which could lead to medications entering the water supply and exposing residents to chemicals in drinking water.


Michigan Medicine – University of Michigan

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