Does Medicine Really Expire?

Since 1979, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has required that pharmaceutical companies put expiration dates on prescription and over-the-counter medicines.

The date printed on a pill bottle is the date until which the medicine’s manufacturer will guarantee the drug’s safety and full potency. How long a drug actually remains safe and effective can vary.

Some medicines like insulin, nitroglycerin and liquid antibiotics, contain active ingredients that are known to become unstable after a prolonged time period. Yet other drugs and medications may have a longer shelf life than their packaging states. The effectiveness of these medicines may degrade over time, but may still offer some benefits.

That said, several years ago, Lee Cantrell, director of the San Diego Division of the California Poison Control System, had a rare opportunity to examine an old stash of drugs — including antihistamines, pain relievers and diet pills — found in the back of a pharmacy.

He found that those found medications, some of them at least 40 years past their manufacture date, still retained full potency.  That study was published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine in 2012. Cantrell published another study in 2017 showing that EpiPens — the expensive auto-injectors used to treat life-threatening allergic reactions — retained 84 percent of their potency more than four years past their expiration dates, suggesting that in an emergency, an expired EpiPen would be better than nothing.

Although the federal government, the FDA and the U.S. Department of Defense started the Shelf-Life Extension Program (SLEP) in 1986, a SLEP study in 2006 tested 122 different drugs stored under ideal conditions, and the results showed, the expiration date of a majority of the drugs in the SLEP storage were extended by an average of four years. 

 Even so, the FDA still strongly warns consumers against taking expired medicine.

Because certain expired medications are at risk of bacterial growth and sub-potent antibiotics can fail to treat infections, leading to more serious illnesses and antibiotic resistance, the FDA strongly warns consumers against taking expired medicine.

The FDA also encourages people to bring their unused and expired meds to the National Prescription Drug Take-Back days, hosted by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

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