You know to check your fridge for anything past its expiration date, but what about your medicine cabinet? It’s always best to follow your healthcare provider’s recommendation on when and how to take medications, whether they’re prescription or over-the-counter. But taking expired medicines can be hazardous to your health. We asked two of our Medly pharmacists—Eric Frazier, Vice President of Pharmacy Operations, and Analise Tenny, Per Diem Pharmacist in New Haven, CT—to explain why it’s important to check the expiration date on your medications.
In short, yes. “The expiration date is the final day that drug manufacturers guarantee the full safety and potency of the medication,” Tenny explains. “That’s assuming the medication is stored according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.”
Fast Facts: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made it a requirement to list expiration dates on medications in 1979.
And not all medications are created equal, either. Injectable medications, such as insulin, may have a shorter shelf life than oral medications, usually because injectable medications are stored differently. “Refrigerated medications tend to reach their expiration date sooner than pills or other medications stored at room temperature,” Frazier says. “For refrigerated medications, the shelf life typically shortens significantly once brought to room temperature or after beginning use.”
The active ingredients in medication can break down, making them less effective. “This can lead to serious health risks for whatever conditions the medications are designed to treat,” Frazier says. “Some medications actually become harmful as they break down as well.”
Quick Tips: In response to shortages and high prices, some sources will suggest keeping a stockpile of EpiPens even if they’re past their expiration date. However, this is not recommended, as expired epinephrine may not counter an allergic reaction.
For example, some medications may become susceptible to bacteria growth past their expiration dates, or the chemical compounds may change. Even if a medication is not harmful past its expiration date, there’s no way to guarantee its effectiveness or safety.
It’s not recommended you take any medication if it’s past the expiration date. This includes prescription and over-the-counter medications. Since the active ingredients of the medication may break down after the expiration date, taking expired medications could be dangerous and lead to serious side effects. “And if you realize you’ve taken medication that’s expired,” Tenny says, “Call your pharmacist and let them know.”
There are three main ways to get rid of medication once it’s past its expiration date. The first is to use a take-back program at your local pharmacy.
“National Prescription Drug Take Back Day is October 29th,” Tenny says. “States’ Pharmacists Associates offer collection sites in different locations on this day every year.”
Some facilities and businesses are permanent take-back locations, registered with the U.S. DEA. At these locations, you can safely dispose of unused prescription or over-the-counter medicines, whether they’re expired or not. You can go online to find an authorized drug disposal location, or type in “drug disposal near me” into Google Maps to find your nearest location.
Did You Know? You should dispose of old medications after receiving a new prescription.
If a take-back program isn’t available, you can dispose of unused or expired medications safely from your home. “The FDA has published a flush list,” Tenny says. “These are medications that can safely be flushed down the toilet or sink.”
Drugs on the FDA flush list include medications that may be abused by others or could lead to death or serious side effects if ingested. Most of the medications on these lists contain opioids, but some drugs without opioids can be flushed as well.
Fast Facts: The FDA has published a paper about the environmental risks of flushing certain prescription medications. They found that the environmental impact was negligible, and the risk of misuse of medications on the flush list was more dangerous than the possible effects on the environment.
If your expired medication isn’t on the flush list and there’s no local take-back program available, follow these steps to safely dispose of your medication.
“Some medications are more harmful to others, and may need more careful disposal,” Tenny says. “If you’re unsure, it’s always best to contact your pharmacist.”
“Nothing can extend the shelf life of medication past its expiration date,” Frazier says. “However, there are many factors that can shorten the shelf life.”
That’s why proper storage of medication is key. “Many medications are sensitive to light, temperature, and moisture,” Frazier explains. “Although it’s common, the bathroom is one of the worst places to store medication.” In most cases, keeping medications in a medicine cabinet is your best bet.
Our pharmacists also recommend periodically checking your prescriptions and over-the-counter medications to ensure they haven’t passed their expiration date. “This includes first aid kits as well,” Frazier says. “Ointments, creams, and eye drops have expiration dates too. Anything that hasn’t been used in a while, check the expiration date and replace it if it’s expired.”