What you should know about expiry dates for medication

  • Medicine must be provided with expiry dates to warn users when it loses its efficacy
  • A study from the FDA shows that some medications are still effective years past their expiry dates
  • However, the type of medication is very important when assessing its longevity

We've all been there – scratching around the back of your medicine cabinet for an old ointment or painkiller to help fight a sudden ailment. 

But when you look at the expiry date, it might be long over, and you're left with a common quandary – should you risk it?

What does the expiry date mean

The little date stamped on drugs is a guarantee from the manufacturer that it will work as advertised as long as it's used before this date.

If the medication is taken after the expiry date, whatever happens then is not the responsibility of the pharmaceutical company.

READ | 5 foods that are dangerous to eat after the expiry date 

Risk factors

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been mandating expiry dates on medication since the 70s, and notes that risk factors of expired drugs include a change in chemical composition due to exposure, a decrease in strength and the opportunity for bacterial growth on certain types of medication.

However, in a study during the 80s conducted at the behest of the US military, they found that 90% of more than 100 drugs, both prescription and over-the-counter, were safe to use even 15 years after the expiration date.

The medications most effective after their expiry date are those that come in tablet or capsule form, while solution and liquid drugs and ones that require constant refrigeration are the types where you shouldn't ignore the expiration date. 

This is also important with antibiotics, because with age they become weaker, and an ineffective antibiotic can train a disease to become more resistant to antibiotics.

ALSO READ | Expired EpiPens may still save lives

Storage is key

However, storage of your medication is incredibly important. This can significantly increase drugs' shelf-life.

They should be kept in dry, cool spaces with no direct light, which means your average bathroom cabinet doesn't qualify, due to humidity levels.

Judge the expiration in context

Some medications are only safe for a few weeks. These include antibiotic mixtures, Epi-pens and eye drops. Painkillers in pill form, like paracetamol and aspirin, last considerably longer.  

Context is also important. According to Harvard School Medical, medication that's only a month past its expiration date will obviously be a lot more potent than medication five years after expiration.

Another thing to consider is what the impact might be if the medication doesn't work. Expired allergy medication won't kill you, but if heart medication isn't doing what it should, it could mean the difference between life and death.

If you have questions about specific medications lurking in your cabinet, the best person to ask is your local pharmacist. 

READ MORE | Storing insulin in home fridges may lower effectiveness

Image credit: Unsplash

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