Is It Safe To Take Expired Medication?

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And why some are safe beyond the best-by date.

When it comes to food and expiration dates, it’s pretty easy to use your best judgment to decide whether or not you should abide by them. That moldy loaf of bread? An obvious toss. A slightly aged jar of apricot jam that still looks great and smells perfectly sweet? It might be worthy of space in your fridge door a little longer. (When in doubt, our guide to understanding food expiration dates will set you straight.)

But what about medication? How do you know whether to honor the date on your pills and throw any expired ones away, or ignore it, and keep taking them? Unfortunately, there aren’t any telltale signs to check — medication won’t grow fuzzy blue mold or start to smell sour. Sometimes throwing out an almost-full container of pain relievers, just because some nearly imperceptible date on the bottom says it’s a month past its prime, feels wasteful. And, seriously, if it really was in our best interest to abide by those dates, wouldn’t they make them a little more legible? 

Alas, there’s no hard and fast rule: As with food, there’s a bit of smoke and mirrors behind the whole enterprise — and there’s also some serious truths to those dates.

We’re breaking down how to understand what expiration dates mean for medication, and whether it’s time to toss those vintage Tylenol, or let them reside on your shelf a little while longer.

Does medication expire?

There are technically two questions you should ask when you’re considering the expiration date of medication. The first is: Does the medication have an expiration date at all? And the second is: What does expiration actually mean for this medication?

This distinction is important, because expiration dates don’t always signify that a product has gone bad, or is no longer safe to consume. In the same way that certain foods can be safe to eat long after their technical expiration date, certain medications are also completely safe to consume after their ideal date, too. 

How do we know? In 1985, the Air Force asked the FDA to inspect its stockpile of drugs (including prescription and over-the-counter meds) worth over a billion dollars, because they didn’t want to throw away perfectly good medication if it was still effective. The drugs were tested by either the manufacturer or the FDA but always with FDA supervision. The result? 90 percent of the medication was completely effective and safe, for at least three years past its official expiration date. 

Of course, the obvious follow-up question is which medications were safe, and which weren’t?

Which medications aren’t safe after expiration?

According to Harvard Health, the expiration date on your medication doesn’t necessarily indicate whether or not your medication is still effective to use, or if it has become unsafe.

What does often happen is that the drug’s effectiveness can start to decrease after its expiration date. But even so, Harvard Health reports, most of the potency of medication can remain for upwards of a decade after medication.

Again, a crucial point to emphasize: An expiration date on medication doesn’t have to do with safety, but with efficacy.

Here’s another piece of evidence to help you put this topic into perspective: In 2022, a clinical pharmacist named Lee Cantrell spoke to The New York Times about whether medication was safe to take after its expiration date. Cantrell explained that he’d been working at the California Poison Control Center in San Diego for nearly 30 years, and during all that time, had received a number of calls from people who had accidentally taken expired medication and were worried about ill effects.

To his knowledge, nothing bad had ever happened to those people. Not once, in 30 years.

Of course, it’s essential to include this caveat: Don’t take any kind of prescription medication, expired or “fresh,” without consulting with your doctor first. Another great resource to tap into is your local pharmacist, who can give you more context about the medication’s active ingredients, and whether or not it’s fine to consume.

How are expiration dates decided for medication, anyways? 

In 1979, the FDA passed a law that required drug makers to decide on an expiration date for any medication they produced. The FDA also required that at least some level of testing/scientific research had to go into this decision-making process.

So if you’re wondering why so many medications have relatively short lifespans, consider two common theories.

The first is that drugmakers make more money if you have to buy more medicine. The second theory is that drugmakers don’t want to put the time and money toward studying medication over the course of years, so they just settle with giving consumers a year or so to ingest it. (You’ll notice that most new vials usually expire about a year after purchase.) 

It’s possible that both of these theories are true, but either way, the outcome is the same: Each year, people collectively throw out enormous quantities of perfectly good (and often very expensive) medication. At the end of the day, deciding what to do with your own medication is always a highly personal decision, one that only you (and your doctor) get to make. 

How to extend your medication’s lifespan

When it comes to getting the most out of your medication’s lifespan, there’s one trick that’s been proven effective in studies: Keep your medication in a cool, dry place. That means that ideally, you should avoid storing your medication in a bathroom or kitchen, because the temperature and humidity in those areas can range wildly. 

A perfect medication storage spot might be your bedroom, or perhaps a pantry shelf. Look for rooms in your house that have a pretty consistent temperature of 59°F-86° Fahrenheit, and that don’t tend to experience more than 60 percent humidity, according to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy. You also want to avoid them being placed in direct light, if possible. 

If you’ve taken all the appropriate precautions and you’re now certain it’s time to pitch some old meds in the trash, follow these steps to dispose of your medication safely.