Do Prescription Drug Expiration Dates Matter?
Most people closely follow the expiration dates for food, but they may not think about the expiration dates on their medications. They might wonder, does medication really expire, and how long can you take medicine after the expiration date? Here is some information from experts about prescription expiration dates. Always consult with your doctor about your own unique situation.
How Are Expiration Dates Determined?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires drug manufacturers to set an expiration date for their products. This is the date at which the full potency and safety can still be guaranteed. According to Harvard Health Publishing, drug manufacturers determine a date by testing the stability of their medications past a certain amount of time, usually two to three years1.
Additionally, some states require pharmacists to set the expiration date as one year after the prescription was written whenever they fill an Rx. This is an added safety measure, since patients may store a medication under different conditions that impact potency, or a patient’s medical condition may change over the year2.
Is It Safe to Take a Medication Past Its Expiration Date?
Always consult with your doctor or pharmacist about whether it’s safe to take an expired medication. In some cases, you may be able to use it as long as there are no signs that it has spoiled. Make sure the medication is not:
- Dried up (for ointments and creams)
- Giving off a strange odor
These are all signs it has gone bad and is no longer safe to take3. The FDA advises consumers to always replace expired medication promptly4.
What if I Forgot to Replace My Rx?
If you forgot to replace a prescription and your only option is to use an expired one, ask your doctor or pharmacist if it is still safe to take. They will weigh the risks of not treating your condition for a few days against the risk that your medication will not have the same potency.
If the prescription appears degraded in any way, do not use it. Instead, contact your doctor to see if you can get a new prescription or ask your pharmacist for an emergency supply.
How Long Can You Take Medicine After the Expiration Date?
There is no definite length of time that you can take a medication past its expiration date, although ConsumerMedSafety.org recommends throwing out medications that are one to two years past their expiration dates5. Always ask your primary care provider before taking an expired medication.
Manufacturers only test their medications for a certain period of time. Without testing for a longer period, there is no way to know how long the drug’s potency remains. Some studies have found that drugs are still effective as many as 40 years past their expiration date, but there are many factors that go into this, including the form and type of drug. These studies should not be taken as advice for your own unique situation.
Studies on Drug Expiration Dates
In 1985, the U.S. Air Force asked the FDA to test a stockpile of medications that were expired or close to expiring because it wanted to avoid discarding the entire stockpile. The FDA ended up extending the shelf life of many of the medications in the study. The testing program only continued through the 1990s and many of the drugs were specific to military use, so the results have limited applications for modern times6.
However, in 2012 another study was published that looked at potency for 14 different drugs, all of which had expired 28-40 years before the study. The researchers found that 12 out of the 14 medications contained at least 90% of the amount of active ingredient that was marked on the label. This is usually considered the minimum acceptable potency7.
The main takeaway from these studies is that in some cases, drugs are good for a period of time beyond their expiration date. However, there is no way to know for sure unless a drug has been specifically tested for that length of time.
Other Factors to Consider
Something as critical as a drug’s expiration date is not a simple matter. There are other factors to consider, including the type and form of the drug and how it’s been stored.
Some Types of Medications Expire Faster Than Others
The type of medication factors into expiration date. The FDA warns that some medications are at risk for bacterial growth once they pass their expiration date. The FDA also cautions that expired antibiotics may fail to treat a bacterial infection and could lead to a more severe illness or antibiotic resistance4.
Here are some medications that may quickly lose potency and should never be used past the expiration date3:
- EpiPen and other epinephrine auto-injectors*
- Oral nitroglycerin (NTG)
*In an emergency situation, using an expired EpiPen is better than not using one at all, provided there are no precipitates or discoloration in the solution. A 2017 study found that some expired EpiPens contained more than 80% of the initial dose of epinephrine8.
Storage Conditions Impact Potency
Also be aware of how storage conditions impact the potency and safety of a medication. The ideal storage place is somewhere cool and dry. Avoid places subject to extreme temperatures or high humidity, such as your car or bathroom.
Overall, it’s safest to follow the FDA’s guidance and properly dispose of expired medications. If you forget to replace a prescription, consult with a doctor or pharmacist to ensure you do not leave a condition untreated or put your health at risk due to medication that’s lost its potency.
One more thing worth noting is that people may put off replacing an expired medication because of the cost. Prescriptions can be expensive, especially for those who do not have insurance or lack adequate prescription coverage.
You should never have to put yourself at risk by using an expired medication. At America’s Pharmacy, our mission is to help you save on your medications - up to 80% in some cases. We offer discounts at thousands of pharmacies across the United States. Download a free prescription discount card to start saving today: