Is It Okay to Take Expired Medications?

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Does this scenario seem familiar: While at a friend’s house you get a splitting headache and ask for aspirin? They retrieve a bottle and you happen to notice the aspirin expired a year ago. What to do? Will taking it lead to your untimely death, or will it simply offer no pain relief? Two very distinct outcomes.

Expiration dates on drugs do mean something, but perhaps not what you’re thinking. In 1979, a law was passed that required drug manufacturers to stamp an expiration date on all their products. This is the date at which the manufacturer will still guarantee the full potency and safety of the drug.

On the expiration date the drug must offer at least 90% of its original potency under proper storage conditions. Contrary to popular belief, the expiration date DOES NOT suggest the time when a medication is no longer effective or becomes somehow harmful.

Generally speaking, drugs expire 2 – 5 years after their production date, and the FDA requires manufacturers determine actual long-term drug potency and stability.

Let’s take a look at some other common questions about expired medications.

How Quickly Do Drugs Lose Their Potency?

How Quickly Do Drugs Lose Their Potency

You’ve heard the saying that the value of a new car starts depreciating as soon as you drive it off the lot. Well, technically, drug potency begins to reduce from the moment it’s manufactured.

Having said this, expired medications have not necessarily lost potency, and, to reiterate, that date is only an assurance that the labeled potency will last at least until that time.

Research indicates that if medications are stored under optimal conditions, they may retain 90% of their potency for at least five years after the stamped date, perhaps even longer.

It’s important to mention that solid dosage forms, such as capsules and tablets, tend to be more stable than drugs that exist in a solution or as a reconstituted suspension. So, while aspirin may be effective three years past it’s date, cough medicine may not be.

Here’s some final food for thought about potency. In the study just mentioned, researchers looked at samples of 8 different medications that had expired 28 to 40 years earlier and contained 15 different active ingredients in all. The active ingredients tested for were:

  • Aspirin
  • Amphetamine
  • Phenacetin
  • Methaqualone
  • Codeine
  • Butalbital
  • Caffeine
  • Phenobarbital
  • Meprobamate
  • Pentobarbital
  • Secobarbital
  • Hydrocodone
  • Chlorpheniramine
  • Acetaminophen

The results were surprising. They showed that 11 of the 14 drug compounds were always present in concentrations of at least 90% of the amount indicated on the drug label, which is generally recognized as the minimum acceptable potency.

How Safe or Toxic Are Expired Drugs?

How Safe or Toxic Are Expired Drugs

While many people assume expired medications are dangerous to take, there are no reports that suggest these drugs are toxic. Medication toxicity is not a well-researched field and more studies may be needed to put an end to this belief once and for all.

Drug Expiration Dates — Do They Mean Anything?

Are There Drugs That Should Never Be Used Past Their Expiration Date?

Are There Drugs That Should Never Be Used Past Their Expiration Date

While most medications on the market are potent and safe to take well past their expiration date, there are certain medications that can result in severe consequences for the patient.

The following medications require the expiration date to be observed:

  • Anticonvulsants – narrow therapeutic index
  • Dilantin, phenobarbital – very quickly lose potency
  • Nitroglycerin – very quickly lose potency
  • Warfarin – narrow therapeutic index
  • Procan SR – sustained release procainamide
  • Theophylline – very quickly lose potency
  • Digoxin – narrow therapeutic index
  • Thyroid preparations
  • Paraldehyde
  • Oral contraceptives
  • Epinephrine – very quickly lose potency
  • Insulin – very quickly lose potency
  • Eye drops – eyes are particularly sensitive to any bacteria that might grow in a solution once a preservative degrades.

How Should Medications Be Stored?

How Should Medications Be Stored

Light (particularly sunlight), moisture, oxygen and extreme temperatures can decrease the efficacy of a medication. For this reason, the best way to store medications to preserve their potency is to keep them in a cool, dry, dark location. Ironically, since bathrooms tend to be moist places, the medicine cabinet may not be the best place to store. A high cabinet in the kitchen, away from pets and little ones, would be more ideal.

The next time you find yourself with a throbbing headache holding a bottle of expired aspirin, consider the information we’ve just shared with you. As a reminder, however, if the expiration date passed a year or more ago and it’s important your medication is absolutely 100% effective (see the list above again), consider purchasing new medication or speak with your doctor about a new prescription.

As always, should you have any questions about the safety or effectiveness of any drug, ask your local pharmacist. He or she is the best resource when it comes to fully understanding all of the facts surrounding your medications.

Jack Roberts is an expert marketer who specializes in promoting and growing physician practices. He currently works with UrgentWay to help improve their online footprint and garner interest in their Urgent Care, Occupational Health and Health services.

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