Are medications safe after they expire?

For the most part, drug expiration dates are not hard and fast rules. Some drugs remain perfectly usable well beyond their expiration dates. If you have questions or take medications for serious health issues, it may be worth asking your pharmacists about your particular medications and their expiration dates, however. 


Let’s face it, we all have unused medicine in our cabinets.  That late night trip to the drug store to get some allergy medication made sense when you couldn’t breathe, but afterwards the box of used pills sits on the shelf until you need it again.  The thing is, it might be months before you need the medication again and in that time you may surpass the ‘use by date’ on the box. It raises an interesting question, are drugs still effective beyond that date, or is should they be thrown out?

The Truth About Expiration Dates on Drugs

Researchers have looked into these very issues.  The Shelf Life Extension Program (SLEP) tested the potency of drugs that were older than the ‘use by date’ and found 90% of medications remained stable for five years beyond the expiration date. All of the medications studied were kept at room temperature in their original boxes.

One medication, Tamiflu, the popular flu fighter showed its safe seven years beyond its expiration date.  The FDA ran the tests, along with help from the Department of Defense, to see if “the product attributes changed during storage or shipping and if they are likely to influence quality, safety, or efficiency.”

So if drugs are OK to take long after their expiration date, why are drug makers so conservative with dates?  Drug manufacturers have said they can only guarantee a product for so long, while critics say the date is a gimmick to get customers to toss the old meds and buy new.

Taking Drugs After Their Expiration Dates

“The expiration date doesn’t really indicate a point at which the medication is no longer effective or has become unsafe to use. Medical authorities state expired drugs are safe to take, even those that expired years ago,” a Harvard Medical School press release said.

If you’re worried about it, ask your pharmacist.

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