Expiration Dates on Medications

Do you check your medications for their expiration dates? An expiration date is the date after which a medication is no longer considered safe or effective to use. It is important to know the expiration date of any medication you are taking so you can be sure it is safe to use and will work as intended.

Expiration dates are typically printed on the packaging of the medication, and may be preceded by the letters “EXP.” The FDA began requiring expiration dates on medications in 1979. However, you may not see the date on all your medications. Labeling is not consistent; you might see different kinds of labels in different places on the package. And since it is the manufacturer who is required to provide expiration dates, you might not see them on your prescription drugs. 

Drug manufacturers are required to stamp an expiration date on their products, but they get to decide what that date is. This is the last date on which the manufacturer will guarantee full strength and safety for the medication. It may not be as effective after that date, and it may even be harmful. The FDA conducted a study for the military in which they found that most drugs continued to be usable and safe for years after their official expiration date. You can’t be sure, though. It’s best not to take expired medications. 

Storing medications

In order to be able to use the expiration dates with confidence, you must store your medications correctly. Don’t decant them into other containers or mix them. For example, if you have a few old allergy pills on hand when you buy a new bottle, don’t pour the old ones into the new bottle. It seems like a good way to save space and keep your medicine cabinet tidy, but you could end up taking the expired medication without realizing it. 

Expiration dates are also based on the medication’s being stored as directed. For example, insulin should be stored in a. refrigerator. If you keep yours at room temperature, the expiration date will not be accurate. Even drugs like aspirin can lose their effectiveness early if they are kept over your stove, in your car’s glove compartment, or in another hot place.

What should you do with expired medications?

Generally speaking, you should discard any medication that is past its expiration date. 

What about prescription medications, which may not show an expiration date? This is a bit of a trick question. You should take prescription medications as instructed. Unless your doctor tells you to do so, there is no reason to keep leftover prescription drugs on hand. Sometimes, as with antibiotics, it is important to take all the pills you receive. You should never use someone else’s prescription, and you would not usually be told by a doctor to take any old pain pills you might have lying around. If you’re not sure about keeping a prescription on hand in case you need it in the future, ask your doctor for guidance. 

With prescription drugs, check with your pharmacy to see if they have take-back programs. Otherwise, mix your expired medications with something inedible, like kitty litter or dirt, and throw them away. 

The exception to this is the FDA flush list: the list of medications that should be flushed down a toilet. This includes opioids and other medications that can be harmful to someone who finds them. 

Disposing of medications can have environmental consequences. Given a choice, it’s best not to bring more medication than you need into your home. Take-back programs are the other best option. 

If you have questions about medications, you can ask your pharmacist or your family doctor.