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Expired Medications: Keep or Toss?

Are expired medications safe for use?

Patients often have questions about drug expiration dates: can they take a medication if it has reached the drug expiration date? Are there recommendations about the best way to store medications? Are there certain drugs that should never be used past their expiration date? There’s actually mixed info out there on this subject.

First, it’s important to understand expiration dates in general. What they indicate is the date up until which the drug manufacturer can guarantee that the medicine is fully potent and safe to take based on product testing. Expiration dates are typically conservative to make sure you get what you paid for—a fully potent and safe medicine.

The effectiveness of a medicine may decrease over time, but studies have shown that much of the original potency still remains years after the expiration date. Excluding certain prescription medicines such as nitroglycerin, insulin, and liquid antibiotics, most medicines stored under reasonable conditions retain at least 70% to 80% of their original potency for at least 1 to 2 years after the expiration date, even after the container has been opened.

Despite the studies, some say it’s not okay to continue taking expired medications.

“The company that manufactures a particular drug works with the regulatory authority to confirm and guarantee that the medicine will still be active in the amount on the label up to expiration time. After that, there’s no guarantee that it won’t decay or become ineffective,” according to Aran Maree, M.D., Chief Medical Officer for Janssen Pharmaceuticals.

Of course, it all depends on the types of medications, as not all are created equal.

According to Maree, while cold medicines may not be as big of a deal, patients run the risk of not getting a full therapeutic effect for certain drugs, such as antibiotics, insulin, epinephrine auto-injectors or cardiac medications.

The safest course of action is to speak with your healthcare professional. It’s a good reminder to take a look into your medicine cabinets and toss what you no longer need or what is no longer considered safe for use.

National Prescription Drug Take-Back Events are held periodically throughout the year. These programs run nationwide and enable you to bring any unused or expired medications to a collection site, where they will be safely and securely eliminated. You can also contact your local government household trash and recycling service to see whether they offer ongoing drug take-back services.

Many prescriptions can be safely disposed of in the household trash by following four simple steps: (1) Without crushing individual pills or tablets, mix the medication with an inedible material such as kitty litter, (2) Place the resulting mixture in a sealed container or bag, (3) Throw container into the trash, (4) Throw away the medication bottle, but be sure all the personal information is crossed out first.  If you have a prescription bottle containing personally identifying information, we recommend pill bottle shredding with a reputable document destruction provider, such as Legal Shred.

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