When it's safe to take expired medicine and when it's not – INSIDER

By | February 5, 2019
  • Expiration dates on medicines don’t mean your medication will go bad on that date, it just means that the medicine is less potent and may not work effectively.
  • Aside from a handful of medicines that are rarely on the market, most common medicines do not become toxic after their expiration date.
  • To prevent medicines from expiring earlier than the date on the label, keep your medications away from direct sunlight, heat, or humidity, otherwise, they may melt and become unusable.

Next time you go into your medicine cabinet and see that a bottle of aspirin has expired, you might wonder how serious that expiration date really is. Will you get sick if you take it even though it’s expired? The short answer is, probably not. According to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, some drugs may retain their potency for up to four decades.

To get more details and find out when you shouldn’t take expired medicine, INSIDER spoke with American Pharmacist Association spokesperson Vincent Hartzell, PharmD, of Hartzell’s Pharmacy to explain the expiration dates on medicines and what you should do when they expire.

Expiration dates signal to consumers when their medicine loses its potency

Medicine’s expiration date is the point at which it isn’t as powerful as it was before the expiration date (which is usually marked by month and year, meaning the end of that month, not the beginning).

“It’s viable to the same concentration effectiveness,” Hartzell told INSIDER. “The medication hasn’t degraded up to that date. And they’ve done studies up until that date [and have found] that … it’s still that concentration at that date. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t stay that concentration after that date, it just means that they’ve done studies up to that date.”

So unlike food, which goes bad by its expiration date, medicine doesn’t necessarily “go bad,” it just won’t work as well.

Hartzell said there are some medications that do become toxic, but those are “usually few and far between.”

Expiration dates can also indicate if your medicine, particularly eye drops or injected medication, is still sterile

Eye drops can become unsterile after their expiration date.
Will Russell/Getty

“The second thing is, with insulin and with most injectables or eye drops, we worry about what’s called sterility,” Hartzell said. “Has that solution been infected or contaminated with another pathogen? Or a virus or a fungus or something? … [An expiration date] means it’s not been contaminated up until that date. They can prove that what they’ve done in manufacturing will make sure that it’s safe up until that date.”

Hartzell said he usually recommends for patients to just throw away any expired medicines because of that.

“My thing that I’ve always told [patients] is, I can tell you from what I know that this medication will work up until that date. I can also tell you that it’s safe and we’re not going to have a problem up until that date because it’s not contaminated,” he said.

“After that date, I can’t tell you anything. So it’s kind of like buyer beware at that point. But if you’re having an anaphylactic reaction and you have nothing else, [an expired epi-pen is] better than nothing … But I’m very leery on how I tell that to a consumer.”

The expiration date for your medicines doesn’t really change when you open it unless it’s something like insulin

According to Hartzell, few medicines change their expiration dates when you open them, particularly if you keep them in good conditions.

“Ideally, medication wants to be stored in like normal room temperature environment,” he said.

For something like insulin, most vials expire 28 days after their first use. However, pills such as acetaminophen, aspirin, antihistamines, or antacids are typically good up to their expiration date regardless of when you open them.

“There are a few medications that are capsules that expire 2-3 months from opening, however they are rare,” Hartzell said.

To prevent your medicines from expiring too quickly, you should keep them in a cool, dry, dark place

The only time your medicine might have an earlier expiration date is if you leave it in direct sunlight or in a hot and humid place.

“No medication should be in direct sunlight or next to direct heat or in a very humid environment. That will change the expiration,” Hartzell said. “So bathrooms, even though we have a medicine cabinet in the bathroom, horrible place to keep medication, the worst ever.”

“The humidity could actually affect the tablets to the point where they could stick together because they’re going to soak up the moisture in the air. Usually, what I recommend for people is actually the bedroom is a better place. There are usually no changes in temperature, there’s usually not changes in humidity. There’s not usually direct sunlight pouring down on them.”

Though your medicine won’t necessarily become toxic if you do leave it in poor conditions like sunlight or humidity, it could make it melt.

“Most times it wouldn’t become toxic, it wouldn’t cause any problems, it just might make the medication melt,” he said. “If it’s a cream, it could make it separate. So it might not make it as effective and the bigger thing is it could affect the expiration date.”

When your medicine does expire, you should be careful how you dispose of it

Medication doesn’t belong in the toilet.
peapod labs/flickr

“Never flush it down the drain or pour it down the drain,” Hartzell said. “There have been some cases of certain medications being found in drinking water because people just flush [it down the drain]. The EPA has reports on this. So don’t flush them.

“I tell people coffee grounds or kitty litter, putting the medication in there, putting a little bit of water in, sealing it shut and then just throwing it in the trash.”

He said there are also pharmacies around the country, including Hartzell’s, that have drug take-back programs.

“It looks like a mailbox, you open it up and you just throw your meds in and we send it to what’s called a reverse distributor and they safely dispose of it and destroy it to protect the environment. In some ways they incinerate it, in some ways they turn it into other materials that can be used for other things.”

And for things like needles or pens that have needles on them, you should put them in an empty container like a plastic laundry detergent container or a coffee canister, so that no one else gets stuck by them.

Always ask your pharmacist about your medicines before they expire

“If someone finds a medication that’s expired or close to being expired, if they have questions about it, they should call their pharmacist and they should ask the question about, what should I do in this situation,” Hartzell said.

“And they should do that before they need the medicine, specifically, because if you’re a diabetic patient and for some reason, you only have expired insulin at home, I don’t want them to just inject themselves, I want them to have a conversation with their pharmacist.”

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