Expired Medicine—Is It Ever Safe to Take?

A healthcare provider weighs in on the level of safety for taking medications past their expiration date.

At times when we have aches and pains, we go to our medicine cabinets to see what options we can take for relief. Sometimes the medication we need is there—but it's expired. Then we're left trying to figure out if we can take it or not.

It's a predicament most of us have faced, so it begs the question: What do expiration dates on over-the-counter and prescription drugs really mean, and is it ever safe to take expired medication? After all, who decided that your go-to migraine relief can't be consumed after, say, two years beyond the expiration date?

What Is the Purpose of Expiration Dates?

"By law, drug manufacturers are required to stamp an expiration date on their products," said Margarita Rohr, MD, of New York University Langone Joan H. Tisch Center for Women's Health. "This date represents the date at which the manufacturer can still guarantee full potency and safety of the medication."

Potency refers to the strength of a drug at a particular dosage that makes the drug effective. "If you are taking a blood thinner like warfarin to prevent blood clots or an anti-seizure medication like dilantin or phenobarbital, it would be important to make sure the medication has full potency to help prevent detrimental effects of medication failure," Dr. Rohr said.

Therefore, as time moves forward, the medication will eventually become less potent—which means that the medication will become less effective beyond its expiration date.

So, Can You Take Expired Medications?

As of February 2021, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recommended that people not take expired medication, due to chemical changes or bacterial growth (in some medicines) that can affect the safety of the medications.

"Insulin and nitroglycerin [which is used to treat chest pain] are known to very quickly lose their potency and therefore should not be used past expiration dates," Dr. Rohr noted. Some expired medicines may also pose a threat to your health if consumed. The FDA stated that "sub-potent antibiotics can fail to treat infections, leading to more serious illnesses and antibiotic resistance."

The FDA also mentioned that having expired medications in your home can be risky not just for you but for others in your home as well. Specifically, according to the Up and Away and Out of Sight campaign, emergency rooms see over 50,000 children annually for medication-related incidents. Thus, there is an apparent danger if children or pets get into medications—especially expired ones, the FDA added.

What To Do With Expired Medications

According to the FDA, the ideal method for getting rid of expired medications is to bring them to a drug take-back location or to occasional drug take-back events as soon as possible, as of October 2020. This will ensure that your medications are disposed of properly, as they will be destroyed at these sites.

You can also dispose of expired medications without leaving home. If your medications are listed on the FDA's flush list, you are allowed to flush them down the toilet. However, if they are not on the flush list, you'll have to follow specific instructions to follow (e.g., whatever is on the bottle). The FDA's non-flushable medication disposal instructions include:

  1. Mixing the medicines with substances like dirt or used coffee grounds
  2. Putting the mixture in a sealable bag or other containers
  3. Adding the bag or container to the household trash to be thrown out
  4. Removing personal information on the bottle label and throwing the bottle out

Although it might be tempting to take what you have in your medicine cabinet, make sure you check the date on the medications and chuck them if they're old. Instead, take the chance to get better relief with a newer prescription per your healthcare provider's advice or a trip to the grocery store or pharmacy for OTC medications.

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