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Drug Expiration Dates


It is not necessary to throw away prescription and over-the-counter drugs just because they are past their expiration dates. In theory, drug expiration dates are supposed to give you a date beyond which the drug could become harmful or ineffective.  In reality, manufacturer's expiration date on most medications is set at 2-3 years from when the drugs are made. These dates are conservative because the companies do not want to go to the expense of testing drug longevity over longer periods. When pharmacies repackage medications, they usually label them with a recommended-use date one year from when the prescription is filled. This is the date consumers see. These dates serve to protect the pharmacies and manufacturers more than to tell you when the pills are no longer any good.

According to the Harvard Health Letter (July 2003):

  • Instances of pills becoming harmful are virtually unknown.
  • As to loss of potency (effectiveness): "Sitting in their vials in a dry, dark place like a medicine cabinet, most pills will stay effective for at least five years. Some medications have been shown to be stable as many as 30 years after they were made." 
  • Drugs in liquid form are not nearly as stable as those in capsules or tablets.

A 20 year Food and Drug Administration study found that 88% of the 122 medicines that were properly stored and tested still were perfectly find a full year after their expiration dates, and the average expiration date could be extended by five and a half years.

According to Dr. Sharon Horesh Bergquist, assistant professor of medicine at Emory University, Atlanta: "There has not been a single confirmed case of an expired medication becoming toxic. The only potential risk from using an expired medication is that the drug might have lost some of its potency. A past-its-use-by-date pain medication might retain only 90% or 95% of its original potency, for example."

CAUTION: Do not use any drug beyond the expiration date if your life or health depends on the potency of the medication.  If you want to use another type of drug beyond the expiration date on the container, speak with your doctor or pharmacist to find out whether:

  • The drug could harm you if you take it after the expiration date.
  • If the drug can't be harmful, what should you look for to determine whether it is no longer effective

NOTE: This caution is particularly true if the drug is used for a serious health condition.

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