Each week, OMRF Vice President of Research Dr. Rodger McEver opens “Adam’s Journal” to answer a medical question from Adam Cohen, OMRF’s senior vice president & general counsel.
Here’s a question from a coworker:
I take daily medication and often forget to pack it when traveling. As a result, I keep a stash in my purse, at my parents’ home and in my car. Sometimes I use these backup pills a few years after their expiration date. Are there risks to this, and is it better than skipping a dose?
Dr. McEver Prescribes
In general, it’s not a good idea to take expired medication. Since 1979, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has required medications to carry an expiration date. Through this time, the drug manufacturer can still guarantee the safety and efficacy of the medication, assuming it is properly stored.
While few medications have been shown to be harmful after expiration, many can become less potent. Although an ineffective dose of over-the-counter pain medicine for a headache may merely prove an inconvenience, in the case of prescription drugs such as insulin, antibiotics or cardiac medication, there can be a life-threatening risk to the user when a drug doesn’t work. Other medications, like eye drops, can harbor dangerous bacteria, leading to more severe illness.
Still, expiration dates can be inexact. In a 2006 U.S. Department of Defense study, scientists showed some drugs could retain potency up to a year after expiration. Despite this, the potency of the medications in the study varied from lot to lot, meaning there is no way for a consumer to know whether a particular drug is still effective after it’s expired.
To maximize the life of your medications, store them in a cool, dry place protected from direct sunlight. Whenever possible, avoid storing drugs in bathroom medicine cabinets. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but bathrooms are often hot and humid from baths and showers. Cars are also a no-go, as they heat significantly even in moderate temperatures.
Whether it’s better to take an expired dose of medication than not at all depends on your specific condition and the drug. Talk to your health care provider or pharmacist about your medicines for guidance. If there’s any doubt, toss the old drug and get a new supply.
Do you have a health query for Dr. McEver? Email firstname.lastname@example.org and your question may be answered in a future column!