Can You Take Medicine After the Expiration Date?

By January 4, 2017health
pills scattered on table with "Expired" stamp text

You’ve likely had the experience in which you look in your medicine cabinet for a cure to your ailment, only to find that the medicine you have is expired.

Did you panic? What’s your next move? Is it safe to consume?

According to Harvard researchers, the answer is almost always yes.

What does the expiration date mean on drugs?

Here’s how the expiration date came to be on medicine:

  • A law passed in 1979 requires drug makers to place an expiration stamp on all of their medicines.
  • An expiration date for drugs is the date when the drug manufacturer can guarantee that the drug is at full potency and safe to consume.

Are drugs safe after their expiration date?

The Food and Drug Administration was asked to do a study on drug expiration dates to help the U.S. military. The military keeps a massive amount of drugs on hand, and it was very costly for the military to throw the unused drugs away every few years and buy new stockpiles.

Here’s the gist of the study:

  • The FDA tested more than 100 drugs
  • The drugs were both prescription drugs and over-the-counter medicines.
  • Ninety percent of the drugs tested were perfectly safe to take, even if it was 15 years after the expiration date listed on the bottle.

Because of the study and other indicators, medical researchers have concluded that expired drugs are OK.

A lot of people believe that expired medications are somehow toxic, but there’s no evidence that closely suggests that notion.  

Are there exceptions?

Researchers say there could be a few exceptions to the guideline:

  • Tetracycline – an antibiotic that’s used to treat a number of different illnesses
  • Nitroglycerin – used to treat heart conditions
  • Insulin – used to treat diabetes
  • Liquid antibiotics – These medicines are not as stable as pills. It’s safer not to take these after the expiration date, especially if you notice discoloration.

They also say that the potency of the drug could decrease over time, but it is still almost as potent 10 years later. What many people don’t know is that expiration dates are purposely overly conservative, just to be on the safe side. If you want to make sure your drugs remain as potent as possible, try storing them in a cool place, like a refrigerator. And if you’re still unsure about whether it is safe to consume expired medicines, talk to your doctor or local pharmacist.