Expert Q&A

Is it safe to take medication after it’s expired?

BY: Michael Castleman

In some cases, yes. The Food and Drug Administration requires all prescription and over-the-counter medications to carry expiration dates. But some health experts contend that they are meaningless.

Critics of expiration dates cite one FDA study of more than 100 drugs purchased by the U.S. Army. Ninety percent were still fresh, safe and effective several years after their expiration dates.

However, “the Army study examined drugs stored under ideal conditions in unopened manufacturer containers,” notes Bona E. Benjamin, R.Ph., director of medication-use quality improvement for the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists. Drugs kept in this manner tend to have a long shelf life. But that’s not how most of us treat our medicines, and many everyday factors can decrease shelf life, including:

•     Frequent opening and closing

•     Exposure to moisture, heat or light

•     Shaking or dropping the container or pills

•     Handling the medication, especially with wet hands

In fact, when your pharmacist opens a manufacturers’ container and transfers the drug to another container, “that action alone reduces shelf life,” says Benjamin.

In addition, the following medications have a short shelf life and should always be discarded once they expire:

•     Liquid antibiotics

•     Eye drops

•     Thyroid hormone

•     Insulin

•     Nitroglycerin

•     Warfarin

•     Digoxin

•     Phenytoin and carbamazepine

However, most other drugs don’t become instantly unusable on the day they expire. So if you go to your medicine cabinet with a headache or heartburn only to find that your remedy has expired, don’t despair: Chances are it’s still safe to use as long as the tablets or capsules have not changed or vary in color, do not have a strange odor, are not crumbling and do not appear damaged. But don’t keep expired medication indefinitely. “I tell people to go through their medicine cabinets annually and discard expired drugs,” advises Benjamin.



Michael Castleman has been called "one of the nation's leading health writers" (Library Journal). He is the author of 11 consumer health books and more than 1,500 health articles for magazines and the Web. Michael is a frequent contributor to Live Right Live Well.



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