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Sharp Health News

Can you still take expired medication?

Dec. 14, 2015

Expired medication

As you rush to your medicine cabinet to relieve the sniffles and cough keeping you up all night, you notice that your sinus medicine expired several months ago. Partly proud of not having a cold in so long, you wince knowing you will have to jump in your car to go pick up a fresh supply.

Some say that taking the expired medicine is fine, while others say dispose of it. Hector Morales, a pharmacist with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Centers, is here with a more definitive answer.

According to Morales, you might want to start warming up the car, because it may be time to freshen up your medicine supply.

“It is not best practice to keep and use expired medications,” explains Morales. “The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) places expired dates on medications for safety purposes. The longer past the expired date, the less potent the drug, resulting in decreased effect.”

Generally, expiration dates for drugs are set for 12 to 60 months after production, but the FDA does not require manufacturers to determine how long medications remain potent after their expiration date, Morales adds.

If you take a couple of aspirin that are a month past the expiration, will you have an adverse reaction and end up in the Emergency Room? Not likely, but as the old saying goes, it is better to be safe than sorry.

Morales adds that the way you store your medicine may decrease potency as well. “Improper storage, such as a humid bathroom cabinet, can contribute to decreased effectiveness in medicines that have not reached their posted expiration date. To help ensure the proper shelf life of medicine, it is better to store medicine in a controlled climate.”

If you are stuck on a road trip with nothing but expired cough medicine to relieve your strained throat, Morales offers a pass as long as you follow the directed amount on the packaging. “In emergency situations, I would say to use what they have until they can replace, but stress that it won’t be as potent and possibly as effective as an in-date medication.”

This is only his suggestion for over-the-counter medications. An expired, less potent prescription drug could be potentially harmful or even fatal to take if it is for something such as heart disease or mental illness.

“I strongly promote disposing of any expired prescription medication for conditions like heart attack and stroke prevention, or something that needs immediate relief like using an EpiPen® for an allergic reaction,” Morales adds, emphasizing getting a new prescription as soon as possible to avoid any risk due to change in chemical composition.

For disposing of medication, Morales refers to the FDA rules promoting finding the nearest take back programs or DEA-authorized collectors.

If no medicine take-back programs or DEA-authorized collectors are available nearby, the FDA offers these three tips for disposing medication in your household trash:

  1. Mix medicine with an inedible substance such as dirt, kitty litter or used coffee grounds.

  2. Place the mixture in a separate container such as a sealed plastic container or bag.

  3. Scratch, tear or scribble over all personal information on the prescription label of empty pill bottles or medicine packaging to make unreadable.

Morales emphasizes that the safest route is to properly dispose of any expired medication, and get a refill or purchase more when you need it.

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