Medicine Expiration Dates: Do They Matter

You’ve probably noticed expirations dates on medicine you use. This is true for OTC or over the counter medications as well as prescription ones.

In addition, there are products you might use for medicinal uses, such as lactase enzyme for those that are lactose intolerant. These, too, have expiration dates.

Why medicine expiration dates matter

In all of these instances, you really need to pay attention to those medication expiration dates. In some instances, ignoring those dates can land you in the hospital or worse.

On the other hand, when you take expired medicine, you’re not getting the full benefits you expect. And while that might not harm you significantly, it’s not a great situation to be in.

The reason I decided to write this article was because of an ongoing argument we have in our house.

My husband does not believe in expiration dates. He thinks they’re meaningless and just a ploy that manufacturers use to get us to buy more of their product.

For example, three out of the four people in our family are lactose intolerant. Therefore, we have packets of Lactaid everywhere.

Some are still “fresh”; others are years beyond their expiration date. My husband still takes them.

expire-lactaid-pills-expiration-dates
Photo credit: Leah Ingram.

What I really think is going on is this: my husband hates throwing anything away or wasting something. So, my guess, is that he believes that you shouldn’t throw away what might be perfectly good medicine that’s just a few months past its prime.

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Well, guess what? Turns out my husband is right–sort of.

I found a study on the National Institutes of Health website that sought to answer, once and for all, if medications are safe and effective to take after their expirations dates have passed.

And the findings were this: it depends. 

How long can you use medication after the expiration date

According to this study, nearly 90 percent of prescription and over-the-counter medications are just fine to use after they’ve expired. In fact, in some instances, they found that some medicines were still good some 10 years later.

On the other hand, here is how the NIH defines expiration dates:

“The expiration date is the final day that the manufacturer guarantees the full potency and safety of a medication.”

NIH

In addition, there are some caveats to keep in mind before I tell my husband that he was right about expirations dates being meaningless.

Drug storage

The biggest caveat is how medication is stored. Just like getting the most shelf life from your makeup before it expires, you want to keep all RX and OTC meds in optimal conditions.

And where do you find those perfect conditions for a long life? Not in the bathroom. 

The heat and humidity in bathrooms are really bad for most things, except maybe plants that absorb moisture.

Based on my reading of that study, we should be keeping all of our medications at room temperature or colder, like in the refrigerator. So, ideally we’ve got them stashed in a cabinet or closet not exposed to heat, humidity or sunlight–sunlight is also bad for drugs.

I really don’t think that our family has stored those aforementioned lactase enzyme pills aka Lactaid pills from Costco in these ideal conditions. Therefore, they probably aren’t still potent after their expiration date.

In fact, if you must take lactase to avoid stomach and gut issues, you may have to take more than the prescribed amount, if the pill has expired. But how much should you take? Plus, there is no guarantee that it will provide the relief you need.

So I guess it’s not surprising that this tip sheet from the Cleveland Clinic on using lactase enzyme pills says to throw them out after the expiration date has come and gone.

What happens when you take expired medicine

So, what can happen if you take expired medicine? Well, you might not get the outcome you expected, such as no gas after eating ice cream when you take expired Lactaid.

Or, you could end up very sick.

Certain medicines taken after they’ve expired could contain bacteria. This is true with liquid treatments, such as eye drops. 

In fact, of all the medications you should avoid after their expiration date has come and gone, it is the ones containing liquid.

“Excluding nitroglycerin, insulin, and liquid antibiotics, most medications are long-lasting,” says the Harvard Health Letter.

Other drugs may have fungi growing in them, also not good to ingest or apply to your eyes or skin. 

How to know if the medicine is expired without expiration date

If you can’t find an expiration date on a bottle or package of medicine, here are some ways to tell that it has, in fact, gone bad and expired. 

One, if the drug suddenly smells off. For example, some medicines are stinky from the get go. When my husband had to take Paxlovid, he said if skunks had a flavor, that’s what it smelled and tasted like. 

So, if you’ve been taking a medicine (prescription or over the counter) for some time, you’ll recognize when its smell changes. This is often a sign that the chemical composition has changed, too–and that’s not a good thing.

In fact, it is time to throw that medication out. However, please see tips on how to safely dispose expired drugs, which is further down in this article.

Two, does the drug look different? For example, have white drugs turned yellow? Did a pill that used to be solid suddenly crumble into dust? Is a formerly clear liquid medicine suddenly cloudy? These are all signs that a drug has expired and you should no longer use it.

Expired covid tests

covid tests
Photo credit: Leah Ingram.

If your insured family is like mine, then you stockpiled at-home COVID tests while insurance coverage made them free. I know that’s no longer true.

Considering the first COVID tests were available for home starting in late 2020, early 2021, you may be wondering what to make of expiration dates on them. You probably think that all of your COVID tests have expired.

The FDA says that, like with other medical items with an expiration date, this date is to show how long you can expect the product to perform 100%. They call it the shelf life.

After the date, there is no guarantee that you’re, basically, getting what you paid for–even if you didn’t pay for the test. But, you know what I mean.

However, this is one caveat: the FDA says that they may end up offering “extended expiration dates” for certain COVID tests. That is, they’re doing studies to determine the stability of these tests. And, if it turns out, they stay 100% accurate after the original expiration date, then the FDA may update expiration dates with extended shelf life.

In fact, the Binax Now COVID tests, which were some of the first ones we ever received, now have an extended shelf life of 22 months. 

So, if you received some of the earliest COVID at-home tests that were supposed to expire 12/28/2022, now they have an extended expiration date and are good to use through 10/28/2023. Therefore, you may think they’re expired COVID tests but in fact they’re good for many more months than the expiration date indicates.

This FDA page has an online list of expiration dates for the most common COVID tests that people probably have at home.

How to dispose of expired drugs

If, after reading this article, you decide that you should get rid of expired medicine, please do not flush it down the toilet or throw them right in the trash. There are proper ways to dispose of expired or really any drug.

For example, many pharmacies have take-back days when you can bring medicines to them. Some have a box available all year long, such as this one that I photographed in my local CVS. It was right next to the pharmacy.

medication disposal box CVS
Photo credit: Leah Ingram.

If you must throw medicine away at home, the FDA recommends that you first mix the pills or liquid with something absorbent, such as kitty litter or coffee grounds. Then, place the mixture in a sealed container.

Only after you’ve taken those steps should you put it in the trash. This will help keep the medicine from decomposing in a way that contaminates soil or groundwater.