Episode 4: Is it safe to use expired medication?
Published Monday, October 15, 2012 11:00AM EDT
Last Updated Monday, November 26, 2012 4:38PM EST
On this episode of Dr. Marla & friends:
Heart disease is the leading killer of women. Dr. Beth Abramson shares the facts women need to know.
Plus, we follow one woman's journey of weight loss and her search for the right diet.
And, meet a robot that's helping autistic children socialize with others.
Also, Dr. Upe tells us what to do with expired medication.
Digital Extra: What to do with expired medication.
You’ve got a nasty headache coming on so you head over to your medicine cabinet for a pain reliever. But you discover all your medications are past their expiry dates. Do you throw them out?
Most of us would. We’d be concerned that not only might the medications not work anymore, they might actually be harmful.
You’d be surprised to learn, then, that the expiration dates on medications don’t mean what you think they do, Dr. Upe Mehan tells Dr. Marla & Friends.
“It’s the date that a manufacturer guarantees that the drug will maintain its potency and be safe and effective,” the family physician says.
In other words, the expiration date does not indicate how long a drug remains "good" or whether it’s safe to use. Rather, expiration dates are simply meant as a guarantee that consumers and patients get everything they paid for.
The fact is, medications are usually safe for months – even years – after the expiration date.
One of the largest studies on the matter was conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the 1970s based on a request from U.S. military. The military owned a $1-billion stockpile of drugs and wondered whether it needed to destroy and replace its supply every few years.
The FDA tested more than 100 prescriptions and over-the-counter drugs, finding that about 90 per cent of them were safe and effective – and as far as 15 years past their expiration date.
But there is an important point to note: all the drugs the FDA tested were sealed and kept in cool, dark places, which may have played a big part in why they held up so well.
“These drugs were kept closed and were stored under ideal conditions – not like the conditions we typically put our medications in: in a bathroom cabinet where they’re subject to heat and humidity, and where they can degrade and become ineffective,” says Mehan.
After a bottle is opened, there’s no telling how much it might degrade, which is why it’s best to use it soon after opening. If it’s kept closed, though, it should last for years.
There are some exceptions. Nitroglycerin, insulin and liquid antibiotics are not to be used after their expiration dates, since they degrade quickly and lose potency. Liquid eye and ear drops should also be tossed quickly, since bacteria may grow inside the bottles.
One study found tetracycline could actually become toxic over time, but that study is considered controversial among researchers.
So how do you decide whether to throw out an expired medication or take a chance?
“If it’s a drug that’s important to treat an important medical condition, then I would get rid of it and get a new drug that you know is going to be 100-per-cent effective,” says Mehan.
“If it’s something to treat something minor, like a headache or hay fever, you might be able to get away with that expired medication.”
And, if in doubt, take a trip to your neighbourhood drugstore.
“If you’re not sure, turn to your local pharmacist, because they’re an excellent resource in this regard.”