Expired Prescriptions—Toss Them or Take Them?

February 2015 View more

PrescriptionYour head is throbbing and you open the medicine cabinet only to find that your headache medication has expired. Is it still safe to take and will it still work? Hopefully this story will inspire you to take an inventory of the drugs you have at home and see what’s out of date.

Expiration Dates Required

Since the 1970s, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has required medications to have expiration dates. “All that the expiration date means is that the manufacturer guarantees the potency of the medicine up until that expiration date. Once that expiration date has passed, there’s no guarantee that the drug is as potent as before,” said Jan Engle, PharmD, University of Illinois at Chicago. Doctors say taking expired medicine for your headache won’t harm you, it just may not end the pounding pain. You can also take vitamins past their expiration date, but they may lose some of their nutritional value.

Outdated Dangers

However, there are certain medications that absolutely must be used by the expiration date. “Some examples of drugs you shouldn’t use past the expiration date include things like nitroglycerin for chest pain, EpiPens for allergies, and insulin for diabetes. So anything that’s for a life-threatening illness you want to make sure you use that product when it’s still in date,” said Engle.

Medication Contamination

Expired or not, there are certain medications that you have to be careful with. Since many ointments tend to linger in your medicine cabinet for longer periods of time, remember that every time you open and close your cabinet door, humidity can sneak in and contamination can become an issue. Repeatedly touching or using the ointment can cause bacteria to grow, which may also become a problem over time. The same can be true for eye drops if the bottle touches your eye.

Sometimes a change in consistency or smell can be a dead giveaway that the medicine should be thrown out. “Never use any medication that has changed color, texture, or odor, even if it is in date. When in doubt, throw it out,” said Naperville Pharmacist Tracy Eraci.

Safe Storage

It’s important to store your meds in the right place. Experts say the bathroom may not be the best choice, since it’s too steamy and warm. “The best location is a cool, dry place out of the reach of children. If a kitchen cabinet is used, it should be away from the stove, sink, and any hot appliances. Also, never leave medicine in a car,” said Eraci.

If you have questions about expiration dates, ask your pharmacist. They can guide you as to whether it’s safe to take that medication past an expiration date. “It is a good idea to keep a list of current medications, dosages, and indications. This is helpful when visiting any physician or pharmacy. It also helps a person determine if there are old medication bottles which should be discarded, decreasing the risk of accidental ingestion. Make use of the automatic refill feature, if appropriate, at your pharmacy to keep medication current. Keep all medicine in a specified area. Also, mark the expiration date on medication containers so that it is easily seen,” said Eraci.

Naperville’s Prescription Drug Drop Boxes
You can safely discard unused prescription and over-the-counter medications at any of the City’s 10 fire stations seven days a week. Only prescription and over-the-counter drugs will be collected. Needles and syringes are not accepted.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommendations on disposing expired medicine can be found online: www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates