Have you ever had a pounding headache and discovered that the only bottle of pain medication in your medicine cabinet has expired? If so, you have faced the dilemma of whether or not to take an expired medication. You may wonder whether, like the expiration dates on foods, the medications have “gone bad” or degraded into harmful substances. Or you may wonder whether the medication is simply less effective after the expiration date. Read on for the scoop on expiration dates, what they mean, and when you should avoid taking expired medications.
13. What the Medication Expiration Date Means
Unlike the expiration date on a carton of milk, the expiration date on your bottle of aspirin is not the date at which the product will spoil. Instead, the expiration dates on bottles of over-the-counter and prescription medications are the dates at which drug manufacturers have determined the drugs are still safe and effective. This means that studies have only been conducted that ensure the drug product will be fully potent and safe for use up until that date. Meanwhile, studies have not been performed past that date.
12. Studies Regarding Medication Expiration Dates
The United States Department of Defense reports that in 1985, the Air Force requested that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) perform drug tests. The Air Force had amassed a stockpile of expired drugs. Rather than costing the taxpayers money by replacing expired medications, the Air Force wanted to determine if those medications were still safe and effective to use. The FDA performed tests and discovered that the medications tested, which the military had stored under optimal conditions, were often safe and potent a decade after the original expiration date.
11. Proper Storage of Medications
Storage of medications is an important factor when it comes to prolonging shelf life. Medications should be kept in a cool dry area away from sunlight, heat, and humidity. The bathroom medicine cabinet seems like a handy place to keep your medications, but it is actually one of the worst places to store them. The high humidity from the shower can introduce moisture that breaks down medications more quickly. A better spot may be a bedroom closet, where temperatures stay steady and conditions are less humid.
One group of medications that requires caution regarding expiration dates is antibiotics. First of all, antibiotics are prescribed in quantities that are necessary for fully wiping out a bacterial infection. Therefore, the complete quantity should be consumed as prescribed, leaving no leftover medication. The use of leftover antibiotics contains its own set of problems, as the medication may not be the proper antibiotic for a particular condition. That issue aside, some antibiotics are no longer safe or effective past their expiration date. One example is tetracycline, which may become harmful as it degrades over time. Liquid antibiotic suspensions also must be discarded once they have expired.
9. Birth Control Pills
Many over-the-counter and prescription medications retain at least 70-80% of their potency after their expiration dates. A pain medication that is 70% effective may still soothe your headache. However, you might not feel as confident taking a birth control pill that is only 70% effective. For medications like birth control pills, which require full potency, be aware of the expiration date and discard any unused medication after that date.Related: 10 Pain Medication Secrets Your Doctor May Not Tell You
8. Eye Drops
When it comes to your vision, you may want to exercise additional caution. Bottles of eye drops come with expiration dates printed on them. Unopened eye drop containers are safe and effective within this time frame. Eye drops contain preservatives to prevent the growth of bacteria that could infect your eyes. However, opened bottles are still at risk of contamination through normal use. The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends discarding opened bottles of eye drops within three months to prevent introducing bacteria to your eyes.
For the diabetic patient, maintaining good blood glucose control is important for treatment of the disease. Unopened insulin vials are safe and effective for use up until their expiration dates. The American Diabetes Association states that opened vials of insulin must be used within one month in order to ensure proper blood glucose levels. Before injecting insulin, inspect the vial. Become familiar with your type of insulin, as some types are clear while others are consistently cloudy. Do not use insulin that has clumps, appears suddenly frosty, has developed precipitation, or has changed in color or consistency.
Sublingual nitroglycerin is a medication that patients dissolve under the tongue in order to quickly treat chest pain called angina. Since nitroglycerin is a volatile substance, it can lose potency more quickly than other medications. Therefore, expiration dates should be strictly adhered to. Nitroglycerin tablets should be kept in a dark, tightly closed bottle to avoid exposure to air and light. Keep your nitroglycerin in the original bottle and discard within three to six months after opening the bottle. Periodically, hold the bottle up to the light, and if you notice the tablets have crumbled or changed in appearance, it is time to replace them.
5. Asthma Inhalers
In the emergency situation of an asthma attack, it is probably better to use an expired asthma inhaler than nothing at all. However, you will want to ensure that you are able to get the most benefit from your asthma medication in an emergency situation. Therefore, be sure to keep an eye on the expiration dates and replace inhalers and other medications in advance of those dates. Inhalers that are past their expiration dates may not be as effective, and when it comes to breathing, you will want to make sure you are using a product that is at maximum potency.
4. Auto-Injection Epinephrine
The epinephrine pens and injectors used to treat the anaphylaxis of an allergic reaction come with expiration dates as well. This is another instance in which it is better to use an expired medication than to use nothing at all. However, when dealing with the life-threatening situation of an allergic reaction, it is best to use medications at their full potency. Periodically check your epinephrine injector and replace those that are about to expire.Related: 10 Medications That You Shouldn’t Suddenly Stop Taking
3. Proper Disposal of Unused Medications
To make sure you are using medications that are fully potent and safe for use, check your medication supply about every six months. Then, discard expired medications, those that may have become contaminated, or medications that you are unlikely to use. Never flush medications down the toilet or down the drain, as this risks environmental contamination. If you are unable to locate a collection site in your area, the FDA recommends mixing the medications with dirt, kitty litter, or used coffee grounds. Next, seal this mixture in a plastic bag before throwing it in the household trash. Collect used insulin needles in sealed plastic jugs to avoid accidental needle sticks.
2. National Prescription Take Back Day
The United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) maintains a database of controlled substance disposal locations. Additionally, each year the DEA promotes a National Prescription Drug Take Back Day to provide safe and convenient venues for the public to dispose of unwanted medications. These Take Back Days usually occur in April and October of each year.
1. Ask Your Pharmacist
When faced with the dilemma of whether or not to use an old or expired medication, feel free to give your pharmacist a call. Your pharmacist can educate you on the safety and efficacy of medications that you have on hand. In addition, your pharmacist can provide you with information on proper storage and getting the most benefit from the medications you need and rely on.Related: 15 Medications You Should Never Combine with Alcohol