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Do Expiration Dates on Medications Really Matter?

Do Expiration Dates on Medications Really Matter?

If you’re like most people, you’ve got a hodge-podge of medications in your medicine cabinet - Nyquil from the time you had the flu three years ago, some leftover Zofran from your son’s stomach bug, and maybe some random kids’ Tylenol bottles that no longer have a measuring cup. You may not even realize that many of those medications are expired. Since 1979, the FDA has required expiration dates on all prescription and over-the-counter medicines. So, does that mean you need to purchase all new medicines every year? Is it unsafe to take drugs after the expiration date?

The answer, as always, is complicated. Expiration dates are based on testing that drug manufacturers do to determine how long the medication is fully effective if stored properly. That means that if you store your medicine properly and take it before the expiration date, you can feel confident that it will pack the punch promised. Taking it after the date on the packaging could mean it doesn’t work as well. However, there are times when the FDA extends expiration dates for certain medications found to be safe and effective beyond their expiration date. For example, the expiration dates on rapid COVID test kits were recently extended. Check this site to see if your medication is on the extension list.

The FDA recommends discarding any medication that’s expired, and that is the safest approach. Even so, it’s unlikely you will be harmed by taking Vitamin C tablets or ibuprofen that expired last year. If your medication looks like it’s decayed or melted, definitely don’t take it. And there are some medications you should never use beyond their discard date. Eye drops are one example as they can become contaminated over time. Antibotics that have lost potency can be harmful because they won’t kill the bacteria making you sick. And, insulin, epi-pens and nitroglycerin should also be thrown away once expired. Even a small loss of potency for those drugs could be life threatening. Finally, never take birth control after the expiration date. While it may not harm you, it could lead to unwanted pregnancy.

If you need to dispose of expired medications, there are a few ways to do it. Look for drug take-back days in your area, or if that’s not practical, you can dispose of most medications in the trash. The FDA recommends mixing them with used coffee grounds, kitty litter or dirt to ensure no one ingests them. There are a few meds that should be flushed instead of thrown away to prevent abuse. Check the FDA’s flush list for more information on those.

The bottom line is that while it’s best to use non-expired medications, don’t feel like you need to run to the ER if you find your Advil or Benadryl is expired after taking it. While they may not work as well, there aren’t serious health risks associated with taking them after they expire. But, do pay close attention to expiration dates on prescription meds, antibiotics, and medications that you rely on to save your life in an emergency.