Here’s news that can save you money! You can ignore the expiration date on many of your medications—for years. According to several reports, including this one in the Annals of Internal Medicine, drugs like EpiPens retain most of their potency well past those expiration dates! And if you think that’s surprising, check out these other secrets your pharmacist isn’t telling you.
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 study in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) shows that drug efficacy extends at least 15 years beyond expiration dates, with some exceptions. Notably, amphetamine (for ADHD and narcolepsy), phenacetin (a painkiller), and aspirin lose their strength. And, though most medications reviewed by JAMA retained up to 90% of their potency, newer research found that EpiPens weakened by 20%. While that weakened drug could still save a life, it’s worth purchasing unexpired doses to avoid complications. And, since each medication may be slightly different, it’s also worth checking with your doctor about expiration dates for drugs treating life-threatening conditions.
Francis Flaherty, former director of the FDA’s drug-testing program, told Pharmacology Today that “expiration dates put on by manufacturers typically have no bearing on whether a drug is usable for longer.” He also noted that these dates are for “marketing, rather than scientific, reasons… It’s not profitable for them to have products on a shelf for 10 years. They want turnover.” Before you take anything, though, make sure to avoid these medication mistakes that can ruin your health.
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)
- 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—even years ago—you should consider what the drug is and what you’re taking it for. If the drug is one of the exceptions—or if your life depends on the drug being 100 percent effective—get an unexpired version. Otherwise, you should be fine, and if you have further questions, check with your pharmacist.
By the way, when it is time to toss old meds make sure you know how to safely dispose of them.