Health Answers

Are medications useless or dangerous after the expiration dates stamped on the bottles?

By Courtney Humphries
December 13, 2010

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Q. Are medications useless or dangerous after the expiration dates stamped on the bottles?

A. We have all had the experience of hunting for an over-the-counter remedy for a headache, fever, or upset stomach, and discovering that the pills we had stashed away are now expired. When faced with the question “take it or toss it?’’ it’s important to know what’s at stake and what’s not.

William McCloskey, interim chair of the Department of Pharmacy Practice at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, says that the potency of any product decreases over time.

Manufacturers are required by law to give drugs an expiration date — the date through which the producer guarantees the drug’s potency and safety — stamped clearly on the medication packaging.

Drugs filled by a pharmacist are often given a “use-by’’ date one year from when the prescription was filled. These are standardized dates that don’t necessarily reflect the potency of a specific medication.

A widely cited FDA study tested more than 100 medications that had been stockpiled by the military, and found that 90 percent of them were safe and effective for years after the expiration date.

The problem, says McCloskey, is that drug manufacturers don’t study what happens to drugs over long periods of time, so there’s no way for consumers to know how long a specific drug will last.

For that reason, he recommends a conservative approach. A few weeks after the expiration is probably fine, but after a year or more it makes sense to replace it.

If you do choose to take that expired pill, the main risk you’re taking is that it won’t work. For a headache remedy or cold medicine it may be worth that risk, but for a medication that’s critical for your health, “you want to make sure it’s potent,’’ McCloskey says.

With the notable exception of the antibiotic tetracycline, medications don’t become toxic or dangerous after they expire. Liquids and liquid capsules tend to be less stable than solid tablets, and storing medications properly can help extend their life.

A cabinet in a humid bathroom is probably the worst place to keep drugs; find a cool, dry part of the house instead.

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