Can you use medications past their expiration date?

By Jeanine Bradley, RPh, Cert. MTM, Ch Herbalist

How important is the expiration date on your medication bottle?  A lot of us will look at expiration dates on food as more of a suggestion than a rule. If it passes the sniff test and there’s no visible mold growth, it’s fine, right? Maybe not. But how do expiration dates apply to medications when the pills that have spent years in your cupboard look the same as the ones fresh from the store?

How do medications expire?

Most medications are made up of active and inactive components. The inactive parts are, in part, meant to stabilize the active components. The active parts can be complex and sometimes unstable, meaning that with time and exposure to outside factors such as heat, light, or water, they’ll break down and no longer be able to perform the job they’re designed to do.  This process happens over time, meaning that the medication will gradually lose active components and become less and less effective.

What does the expiration date mean?

The expiration date is the date by which the manufacturer can still guarantee the full potency and safety of the drug. These tend to be conservative estimates to be safe as there is evidence that a lot of medications will still be good months to several years past their posted expiration date. For proper storage, keep your medications away from heat, light, and humidity. Any bathroom that has a shower is generally not a good place to keep your medications.

Are expired medications safe to take?

Depending on the medication, it could be.  There are very few products currently on the market that produce actively harmful chemicals when they start to degrade.  Of course, as mentioned, medications get less effective as they degrade, and not getting the full dose can be dangerous for some medications that require a specific amount to be in the body. For example, if the medication is for a potentially serious medical condition such as a blood thinner for stroke prevention, you could be putting your life in danger by taking expired medication.  If you find yourself questioning whether a medication would be safe to take expired, it’s probably best to play it safe and dispose of it or ask your pharmacist.

Resource: Living Well by Seniors Sunset Times

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