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Have leftover painkillers? Here’s what to do

Part of the strategy for dealing with the opioid addiction crisis in Nova Scotia must include how to properly handle leftover prescription painkillers. The best thing to do with these medications is to return them to a pharmacy, says Peter Bakes, a pharmacist and owner of The Medicine Shoppe in Truro.

Any pharmacy, anywhere, anytime,” he says. “Medication returned will be collected in an area quarantined from other medication and picked up for proper disposal by a medical waste disposal service.”

Whenever possible, medications should be returned in their original container to help identify the contents. Those drugs will then be destroyed according to policies set up by the Nova Scotia College of Pharmacies and Health Canada’s Office of Controlled Drug Substances.

Dropping off old medications at the pharmacy seems like an easy enough strategy. Too many people, however, are still leaving leftover drugs in a medicine cabinet at home.

“People don’t want to throw something away or ‘waste it’ in case they need it again,” Mr. Bakes says. Patients might be prescribed painkillers to manage many different kinds of pain, from a bad toothache to post-surgical pain, from comfort measures for the terminally ill to managing chronic cancer pain. “Quite often these are narcotic-based drugs for short-term use ‘as needed for pain.’ Once the need for the painkillers has passed, they should be returned to the pharmacy for safe disposal.”

It’s never a good idea to hold onto leftover prescription painkillers, he says. The longer a medication sits in your medicine cabinet, the greater the chance it has passed its expiry date and has lost its effectiveness.

“Also, if you’re using an old prescription for a new problem, you are basically prescribing and treating yourself when, perhaps, you should be seeing a physician,” he says.

Sharing leftover prescription painkillers with someone else poses risks too. First, it’s illegal, according to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Second, the other person could be allergic to them or the medications could interact with others they are taking. Narcotics can also cause respiratory depression resulting in death when the dose is too high.

Your medicine cabinet can also be targeted by anyone with a substance use disorder, he adds, or someone wanting to steal prescription painkillers to sell them.

Another issue is improper disposal.

“Flushing medications down the toilet is unacceptable because a portion of that drug can make it into the environment and possibly cause harm,” Mr. Bakes explains. “Water treatment plants are not designed to filter medications.”

These drugs can pass into the ecosystem. While there is no evidence of harm to humans, there is evidence of changes taking place in small aquatic life.

“Medications shouldn’t be put in your household garbage either, as they are considered hazardous material,” he says. “There is concern that they could leach out and contaminate groundwater over time. There have also been reports of poisonings of kids and pets from improperly discarded medication.”

For the health and safety of all, always take leftover prescription painkillers to your local pharmacy.

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