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Ask an Expert: Can You Take Expired Medication?

We’ve all been there. We have a splitting headache and we walk to the cabinet to find that our over-the-counter pain medication has expired. Or, we start to pack some rarely used anti-diarrheal pills for an upcoming overseas trip, only to realize that the package is several years old.

Since a law was passed in 1979, drug manufacturers are required to stamp an expiration date on their products. This is the date through which the manufacturer can still guarantee the full potency and safety of the drug, though research now shows that these dates may not actually be the end of the story.

Does a Drug’s Expiration Date Really Matter?

Harvard Medical School reports that most of what is known about drug expiration dates comes from a study conducted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) at the request of the military.

With a large and expensive stockpile of medications, the military was disposing of and replacing its drugs every few years. The FDA’s research found that 90 percent of more than 100 drugs, both prescription and over-the-counter, were perfectly good to use even 15 years after the expiration date.

So, in many cases, the expiration date doesn't really indicate a point at which the medication is no longer effective or has become unsafe to use.

Does that mean you should ignore them? Not really.

Here are the drug expiration guidelines I share with my patients.

Medications That Should Not Be Taken After Expiration

While some drugs, if stored properly, will last years after their expiration date, there are some very big exceptions, including:

  • Insulin
  • Liquid antibiotics
  • Nitroglycerin
  • Tetracycline
  • Any biologic medication
  • Emergency inhalers for asthma
  • Epinephrine for an allergic reaction (e.g., Epi-Pen)

Additionally, any medications that require blood tests or blood levels to monitor for effectiveness and side effects, or have a low therapeutic index, should only be taken before the expiration date. Examples include Warfarin, anti-convulsants, Aminophylline, and digitalis.

A low therapeutic index refers to medications where the amount that needs to be taken for effectiveness is close to the amount that may cause an adverse reaction. It is very important that these medications are always stored and used exactly as prescribed for their safety and efficacy. Your pharmacist can explain if this applies to your situation.

Medication Must Always Be Stored Properly

Most of us do not store our drugs in a climate-controlled warehouse, like the U.S. military. If you have stored your medications in a steamy bathroom for several months, or carried a pill bottle in your purse in a variety of climates (hot car, cold office, etc.), then it is likely that your drugs are aging faster than those stored in a consistently cool, dry environment.

Drugs that are particularly sensitive to heat and humidity include:

Use Careful Judgement

At the end of the day, an older medication that was stored properly is likely still a little less effective than a brand-new medication. The expiration dates are very conservative to ensure you get everything you paid for.

If considering an expired prescription drug, always ask your pharmacist before using something that is several years old. Also, ask your pharmacist about proper disposal of expired medications. Many pharmacies have the ability to help with unused drug disposal.

Get a New Prescription

If you have prescriptions medications that are expired, it is no longer safe to take them. Safely dispose of them and consult your doctor for a new prescription. When you visit the pharmacy to pick up your Rx, don’t forget that you can save by using the FamilyWize Prescription Discount Card .

This post is part of our “Ask an Expert” blog series by Ken Majkowski, Pharm.D, the Chief Pharmacy Officer at FamilyWize. Ken brings more than 40 years of healthcare experience to the FamilyWize team, including 14 years of clinical pharmacy experience in retail, hospital, and home care. Read his full bio here.

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