Taking expired medications

GLENN ELLIS | 11/13/2017, 6:09 p.m.
Is expired medication effective and safe to take? Do drugs really stop working after the date stamped on the bottle?
Prescription medication blister packs. Stock photo

Strategies for Well-Being

Is expired medication effective and safe to take? Do drugs really stop working after the date stamped on the bottle?

Drug manufacturers are required to stamp an expiration date on their products. If your medicine has a use by or use before date instead of an expiry date, this usually means that you shouldn’t take the medicine after the end of the previous month. For example, if the use by date is January 2018, you shouldn’t take the medicine after Dec. 31, 2017.

But what does the expiration date mean? Actually, it’s the date up until which the drug manufacturer can guarantee that the medicine is fully potent and safe to take based on product testing. Expiration dates are typically conservative to make sure you get what you paid for – a fully potent and safe medicine.

Expiration dates have been mandated for medications since 1979. The expiration date is the last date that the pharmaceutical company will guarantee that the drug is at 100 percent full potency. Except in very rare cases, there is no evidence that suggests that there is anything harmful about that medication if used after that date. In other words, they don’t magically become poisonous or cause you to grow a third eye in the middle of your forehead.

Studies have shown that much of the original potency still remains years after the expiration date. Excluding certain prescription medicines such as nitroglycerin, insulin and liquid antibiotics, most medicines stored under reasonable conditions retain at least 70 percent to 80 percent of their original potency for at least one to two years after the expiration date, even after the container has been opened.

The crazy thing is that hospitals and pharmacies are required to toss expired drugs, no matter how expensive or vital. Meanwhile, the FDA has long known that many remain safe and potent for years longer, according to Marshall Allen of ProPublica.

Allen has been researching why the U.S. health care system is the most expensive in the world. One answer, broadly, is waste – some of it buried in practices that the medical establishment and the rest of us take for granted. He has documented in a series how hospitals often discard pricey new supplies, how nursing homes trash valuable medications after patients pass away or move out, and how drug companies create expensive combinations of cheap drugs. Experts estimate such squandering eats up about $765 billion a year – as much as a quarter of all the country’s health care spending. Every year, nursing homes nationwide flush, burn or throw out tons of valuable prescription drugs.

In April 2017, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day collected 900,386 pounds – that’s 450 tons – of unwanted or expired drugs. Those are drugs that someone paid for and are now being incinerated. If expiration dates are nonsense, extending them could have considerable economic and environmental benefits.

FEMA and the Department of Defense are government agencies that stockpile huge stores of medications for use in the event of a major emergency, such as a natural disaster or national emergency. FEMA has seen massive stores of medication expire, and so a study was commissioned to find out how effective these expired medications still were. This program has evaluated at least 100 medications that were expired for at least two to 10 years at the time they were evaluated. This includes many commonly used antibiotics and other medications that could mean the difference between life and death in a collapse situation.