Risks of Using Expired Medicine

Jason, 36, did what he always did when he sensed a migraine about to hit. He opened his medicine cabinet and pulled out his bottle of Imitrex. He happened to notice that the prescription had expired nine months earlier. Recalling that the pharmacist told him each pill cost around $16.50, he pulled off the cap and took some of the medication.

A law passed in 1979 requires drug manufacturers to print an expiration date on all bottles or packages of medication. Typically, the date is two to three years from the date the medicine was manufactured, according to USA Weekend Magazine.

By including the date on the label, the drug company that produced the medication is guaranteeing that it will retain its full strength and safety through the printed date as long as it stays in its original, unopened package. This applies to both prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

In order to decide whether there are risks associated with taking a particular medicine once it has expired, it’s important to understand the difference between its expiration date and shelf life. With the exception of some types of medications, a drug might be good for a long time past the expiration date, provided the manufacturer’s container hasn’t been unsealed.

This conclusion is the result of a study the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) conducted in 1985 for the Air Force. This branch of military service ended up with a surplus of medications on the verge of expiring. Eager not to waste funds, the Air Force asked the FDA to check the stockpiled medicine for both safety and effectiveness. The FDA estimated that 80 percent on the drugs would still be safe three years past their respective expiration dates.

USA Weekend Magazine believes three years is generally a safe period in which to use medications once they’re expired. There are some exceptions, however.

Liquids or suspensions

A good example is the prescription that can’t be mixed until you show up at the pharmacy to pick it up. Liquids and suspension medications keep their potency for a shorter time than solid medicines do. The safe thing to do is heed the expiration date printed on the package.

So-called “lifesaving” medications

A patient who depends on a medication for a condition such as severe cardiac arrhythmia should not count on an expired product.

Medications the pharmacist bottles

The prescription that goes home from the pharmacy might actually have two expiration dates. The first is printed on the large container of the medication shipped to the pharmacy from the manufacturer. This date is based on the package remaining unopened. The patient never sees this container unless the quantity of his or her prescription is exactly equal to the number of pills in it.

To fill individual prescriptions, the pharmacy staff breaks the seal of the container, counts out the pills needed for one prescription, and returns the big container to the pharmacy shelf. The pharmacist then puts a new expiration date on the patient’s bottle. It’s usually limited to around a year beyond the date the prescription was filled and is known as the “beyond use” date. The best way to find out how long a prescription in a pharmacy bottle should last is to ask the pharmacist.

In general, storing medications at home in a cool, dry spot like the refrigerator can preserve the life of a medication.


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