Jul 13, 2021

Can I Take Expired Medicine?

How often do you go through your medicine cabinet or first aid kit to dispose of expired medication? If you can't remember, we bet you may find some expired meds!

Then of course, the question is what should you exactly do with expired meds? How do you safely and adequately discard them? Can you keep them and even continue to use them for some time if they have just recently expired? Are expired medications or other capsules still safe to take after their expiration date? How much will their potency be affected once they have reached their expiration date? 

These are all very commonly asked questions! We put together this article to address and demystify the safety of expired drugs safety as well as answer common questions regarding out-of-date meds.

What is an expiration date?

Defined as "the final day that the manufacturer guarantees the full potency and safety of a medication," expiration dates are found on all prescription medications, OTC medications, vitamins, supplements, and herbal products.

In 1979, the U.S. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) started requiring manufacturers to put an expiration date on all medications to help better regulate their safety.

How are expiration dates established? Can they be extended?

When the manufacturer applies for FDA approval of their drug, they must also include testing data with a proposed expiration date and storage conditions. According to the FDA, "this testing is designed to provide confidence that the product will meet the applicable standards of strength, quality, and purity throughout its shelf-life."

Is medicine unsafe to take after its expiration date?

The FDA advises never taking medications beyond the expiration date as it poses a risk with many unknown variables. Such variables that may affect the condition of a medication is how the drug was stored before you acquired it, the drug’s chemical make-up, and the original manufacturing date, which can all affect the strength of the medicine. There's no way to know if a drug is safe unless it's tested for potency, and some start to break down quickly after they have reached their expiration date. 

While no studies explicitly show that taking expired meds will cause harm, the uncertainty with continuing to take them after they have expired concerns their efficacy in treating serious health conditions. Below are just a few common prescribed medications and possible side effects that may occur if they are they are continued to be taken after they expire. 

Insulin - Used to control blood sugar in people with diabetes. It starts breaking down quickly after expiration and can cause high blood sugar levels.

Antibiotics- These medications are prescribed to treat bacterial infections. After they have reached their expiration date, chances of the drug becoming contaminated with bacteria increase which can cause a person to become sicker and/or develop antibiotic resistance. 

Oral nitroglycerin (NTG)- Used for angina (chest pain) and heart attacks. This medication is sensitive to heat and moisture and therefore, may lose its potency quickly once the medication bottle is opened. With lower potency, it may then fail to stop a heart attack.

EpiPen- Used to retract closing of the mouth and airways during a severe allergic reaction. Expired EpiPen can become ineffective quickly, causing it to lose the ability and efficacy to stop what can sometimes be even fatal allergic reactions.

Eye Drops - Prescribed to treat various eye conditions. Expired eye drops can start to grow bacteria, potentially causing other eye infections and conditions like pink eye, for example.  

What about over-the-counter (OTC) medicines? Do over-the-counter medicines expire?

Consumers buy popular OTC drugs every day to use for aches, pains, and allergies. 

These medications include:

  • Tylenol (acetaminophen)

  • Advil and Motrin (ibuprofen)

  • Benadryl (diphenhydramine)

  • Claritin (loratadine)

  • Sudafed (pseudoephedrine)

  • Topical creams, powders and drops

A study conducted by the U.S. military determined that while some medications can retain their potency up to one year after their expiration, there were variations of strength from batch to batch. Therefore, it is nearly impossible to know if your OTC medications are still effective after their use-by date. 

OTC medications may not pose serious health risks if they are taken after their expiration date, but most likely will lose all or some potency to alleviate your symptoms. 

How do you properly store medicine to maintain its shelf life?

It is also critical to store medications properly to help extend their potency. Always read the package insert to see how to properly store your medicine since the recommended storing protocols may vary from medicine to medicine. Consult with your pharmacist for more clarification. 

While the bathroom and medicine cabinets can be convenient places to keep your medications, they are not always ideal due to heat and humidity. Medications should also not be left in the car due to hot and freezing temperatures that may interfere and affect the drug’ potency. 

Be sure to always keep the prescription bottle caps tightly closed and out of reach of children and pets. 

When and how to dispose of your medications

There are cases when medication should be thrown out, expired or not. Some sings to to look out food that are indications it is time to dispose of your medicine are 

  • Powdery or crumbling texture

  • Strong smell

  • Dried-up consistency 

  • Cloudy or discolored with visible floating particles (injectables)

If your medication shows the above signs or has expired, there are a few ways to make sure it is disposed of properly. Some medicines will indicate the best way to throw them out on their information insert.

The FDA recommends dropping your medications at a drug-take-back location for the safest way to dispose of them. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) also hosts National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day events throughout the year.  

If you can't get your medications to a take-back location, there are other options to discard them safely. 

  • Dispose of them in the trash- Mix your medications with an undesirable substance (kitty litter, coffee grounds, dirt) in a bag, seal tightly, and throw away. Be sure not to crush tablets or open capsules before mixing with the substance.

  • Flush down the drain- Medications that are highly abused or can result in death if one dose is taken can be found on the FDA flush list. The FDA recommends these medications be flushed. 

No matter the way you dispose of your medications, be sure to remove your personal information on both the bottle labels and medicine packaging.

Summing it up

Some people believe that taking medications after their expiration date can still be effective and help save them money instead of purchasing new medication. While there may be some truth about drugs still working after their printed expiration date, the FDA clearly states that consumers should not use expired medications because of potential risks.

So should you use expired medication? It is always safest to discard medicine that has expired.

If your medication is vital for a severe and chronic disease, be sure to get a new prescription before it expires and keep up with refills as needed.

Always speak with your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have. 

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