Is It Safe To Take Expired Medicine?

The answer may surprise you.
Ralf Hiemisch via Getty Images

The Question: Is expired medication effective and safe to take?

The Answer: Take pause before just reaching into your medicine cabinet.

There are a few factors that determine whether or not it’s okay to take medication past its expiration date. The type of drug, how much time has passed beyond the date and how the medicine has been stored all matter, says David Nierenberg, chief of the section of clinical pharmacology and toxicology at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center.

“If you are using something that was a few months or a year after the expiration date, and it had been stored well, for most drugs I don’t think you have a problem,” Nierenberg told The Huffington Post. “But the companies won’t guarantee it.”

This is especially true for over-the-counter medications like aspirin, he explained. Pharmaceutical companies test a drug’s efficacy and safety for a set period of time ― usually two to three years ― and only if it has been stored properly. Proper storage means the medication has not been exposed to extremely hot or cold temperatures, direct sunlight or heat and moisture.

There’s some scientific research that indicates medication may work for a long time following its date. A 2000 study conducted by the Food and Drug Administration found that 90 percent of unused medications stockpiled by the U.S. Military remained completely potent several years past expiration. The findings suggest that drug makers tend to be conservative with expiration dates and raised questions about testing for extended shelf-life, according to the study’s authors.

When it doesn’t work

That’s all good news for people who need something in a pinch or want to save some money. However, Nierenberg says there are some medications that should always be a hard no once their expiration date has come up.

Liquid medicine, in particular, should be avoided. This is because the contents of the bottle are sterile until the seal is broken. But once a liquid medication is opened, it becomes very susceptible to bacterial contamination.

“That’s especially true of things like liquid eye drops,” Nierenberg said. “That’s why they say never touch the tip of this bottle to your eyelid.”

You should also take expiration dates and storage directions on prescription medications seriously.

For example, nitroglycerin tablets ― usually prescribed to people who experience angina or coronary heart disease ― are extremely susceptible to going bad if they’re kept in extreme heat. It’s advisable to not keep tablets like these in a hot car, even in your glove compartment. There’s a good chance the drug could deteriorate in the heat and thus make it ineffective.

You should also think about antibiotics the same way, Nierenberg said. If you have a serious infection and find leftover antibiotics in your medicine cabinet, there is no way to confirm the medication is still as powerful and so it’s probably not worth the risk. (Not to mention the fact that you should always consult your doctor before taking prescription medication.)

“You don’t want to take an antibiotic that’s lost [any percent] of it’s potency because maybe your infection isn’t going to get better,” Nierenberg said. “The more serious the condition, the more sure you want to be that the company that made it has tested it and guarantees it. And the less likely you want to gamble with that.”

When in doubt, throw it out

It’s best to go through your medicine cabinet to toss out old medications annually, Nierenberg says. This way you won’t be questioning medication in the moment. The best way to dispose of medication is to bring it to a Drug Take Back program, according to the FDA.

And ultimately, just play it safe and buy new medication whenever you’re unsure, Nierenberg said. It’s the best way to know that it’s safe and that it’s working.

Sounds like sound advice to us.

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