This Is When It’s OK to Take Expired Medication

Updated: Jan. 28, 2021

Research suggests that many medications are still safe and effective years—or sometimes even decades—after the expiration date.

Here’s news that may save you money. You can often still use medication even past the expiration date—sometimes for years. According to several reports, including a report in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice, EpiPens retain most of their potency well past those expiration dates. And if you think that’s surprising, check out why your pharmacist actually knows more than your doctor.

What does the expiration date mean?

Since 1979, the FDA has legally required drug manufacturers to list an expiration date. That date reflects the latest point at which the “manufacturer can still guarantee the full potency and safety of the drug,” according to Harvard Medical School’s Health Publishing. But research conducted by the FDA demonstrates that 90 percent of more than 100 drugs—both prescription and over-the-counter—are perfectly good to use even 15 years after the expiration date. In fact, a Medscape report reveals that expiration dates don’t indicate how long a drug “is actually ‘good’ or safe to use.” As a result, medical authorities uniformly say it’s safe to ignore most expiration dates for quite a while.

How long past?

A few years, back, researchers found some drugs in a retail pharmacy—still in the original packaging—that were between 28 and 40 years old. After testing the drugs, the researchers published their results in a research letter in 2012 in the Journal of  American Medical Association (JAMA): They found that the meds retained 90 percent of their potency, with three exceptions—amphetamine (for ADHD and narcolepsy), aspirin, and phenacetin (a painkiller) fell below 90 percent potency.

The EpiPen research revealed the injections retained 90 percent of their original potency up to two-and-a-half years later. That’s still within the variance allowed by the Food and Drug Administration for all medications (90 percent to 110 percent is the permitted range). While this can mean that in an emergency an expired EpiPen could save a life, you should still always aim to keep unexpired doses on hand to avoid complications. (EpiPens are used to treat life-threatening allergic reactions.) And, since each medication may be slightly different, it’s also worth checking with your doctor about expiration dates for drugs treating other life-threatening conditions.

As the JAMA study authors note, expiration dates put on by manufacturers typically have no bearing on whether a drug is usable for longer. Before you take anything, though, make sure to avoid these medication mistakes that can ruin your health.

The exceptions

The meds you don’t want to use past their expiration dates include:

  • Tetracycline (this antibiotic loses its effectiveness after expiration, though scientists are still researching this)
  • Nitroglycerin (taken as heart medication)
  • Insulin
  • Liquid antibiotics

How to decide whether to take an expired drug

“Given that Americans currently spend more than $300 billion annually on prescription medications,” the JAMA report states, “extending drug expiration dates could yield enormous health-care expenditure savings.” If the expiration date has passed, you should consider what the drug is and what you’re taking it for. If it’s one of the exceptions—or if your life depends on the drug—pony up for the unexpired version. Otherwise, it might be okay to use. To be sure it’s safe and if you have further questions, check with a pharmacist—they tend to know a lot more than they reveal.