The dangers of using expired medicine

Image: Getty Images
Image: Getty Images

Most medicines – whether prescriptions, over-the-counter or complementary – are stamped with expiry dates, which is the final date at which the manufacturer can guarantee its full potency and effectiveness. 

But what happens to a medicine after that date? Is it still safe to use? And, if it isn’t, can you just throw it in the bin?

The truth about expiry dates

According to Harvard Health Publications (2015), a study conducted by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found that almost 90% of more than 100 drugs were safe and effective as many as 15 years after the expiry date.

However pharmacist and member of the Self-Medication Manufacturers Association of South Africa Regulatory and Technical Committee, Nicole Edelstein disagrees. “It is not advisable to consume expired medicines. While some may still be safe and effective after their expiry date, this cannot be guaranteed and is a risk not worth taking. Expiry dates are there for a reason and should be respected. This is particularly important for vulnerable populations like children or the elderly, or those with a chronic or serious condition. So the bottom line is: if your medicine has expired, dispose of it and do so safely.”

Dangers of expired medicines

Edelstein explains: “A medicine may start to lose its potency after expiry which can have serious consequences if it is being taken for a serious condition or illness, for example a heart condition or epilepsy. Even a slight loss of potency in an antibiotic can impact recovery as it may not reach the level in the body required to eliminate the bacterial infection. This also contributes to antibiotic resistance, resulting in antibiotics becoming less effective and bacteria becoming more resistant to them which is a worldwide problem.

Secondly, medicines degrade over time and after expiry, in some cases, may reach toxic levels of degradation products which needless to say would be harmful to the user.”

Scientific researcher Leigh Ann Anderson suggests you should steer clear of these medicines after expiry date:

* Injectable drugs, especially if they look cloudy or discoloured

* Insulin

* Refrigerated liquid

* Eye drops

* Oral nitroglycerin

* Vaccines

* Medicines that are powdery, crumbling, have a strong smell, or have dried up


References: Anderson, Leigh Ann, ‘Drug Expiration Dates - Are They Still Safe to Take?’ (2014). Available at:

Harvard Health Publications, ‘FDA study gets to the heart of medicine expiration and safety’ (2015). Available at:

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