Food, cosmetics, housecleaning products—just a few of the many everyday items that carry a "best by" date. Most prescription medications are also assigned a day of expiration. But while one whiff can alert you to spoiled milk or meat, it's not nearly as easy to tell when prescription and over-the-counter drugs go bad, which leaves many consumers confused as to the purpose of these seemingly arbitrary dates.
Do drugs really "expire?" Are expiration dates hard and fast rules, or simply guidelines? What happens when a drug goes bad?
Why expiration dates exist
Mandated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the late 1970s, prescription expiration dates are initially set by drug manufacturers. Based on when the medication was dispensed, a pharmacy may also assign their own expiration date that precedes the manufacturer's. Most prescriptions carry an expiration date of about a year from when a pharmacist opened the original package or bottle.
The idea of a pill or tablet going bad might seem doubtful, but it's important to pay attention to these dates. Expired medicines can make you sick. Not because they are spoiled, per se, but because they no longer work the way they should.
"Once enough time has passed, most drugs begin to lose potency," cautions Kathryn A. Boling, M.D., a primary care physician with Mercy Medical Center in Lutherville, MD. Even though recent studies indicate that certain drugs retain their effectiveness beyond their official expiration date, Boling says that people who take a drug after it has expired may end up receiving an improper dosage.
And some drugs—for example, tetracycline, an antibiotic used to treat bacterial infections such as pneumonia and urinary tract infections—do become toxic beyond a certain date.
The importance of proper storage
Ensuring the optimal effectiveness of prescription medications goes beyond just monitoring dates. "Storing drugs incorrectly can cause them to become ineffective even before the expiration date has passed," Boling says."Most people keep medications in their bathroom medicine cabinet—which, when you think about it, is not the best place in the world as it is moist and has fluctuating temperatures more than anyplace else in the home. This may cause the drug to lose even more potency."
Cool, dry places are ideal for most medications. If the bottle comes with a cotton plug, remove it in order to prevent moisture from being trapped inside. Be on the lookout for changes in color and texture; these signs indicate that a medication has gone bad and should be replaced, regardless of the date on the bottle.
For medication-specific storage instructions, consult your pharmacist.
Disposing of expired meds
Leaving old, expired or unused medications in the house can pose a serious health hazard, especially for older adults and younger children. It's important to dispose of any unnecessary drugs in the proper way:
- Take-back programs: National Prescription Drug Take-Back Events are held periodically throughout the year. These programs run nationwide and enable you to bring any unused or expired medications to a collection site, where they will be safely and securely eliminated. You can also contact your local government household trash and recycling service to see whether they offer ongoing drug take-back services.
- In the trash: Many prescriptions can be safely disposed of in the household trash by following four simple steps: (1) Without crushing individual pills or tablets, mix the medication with an inedible material such as kitty litter, (2) Place the resulting mixture in a sealed container or bag, (3) Throw container into the trash, (4) Throw away the medication bottle, but be sure all the personal information is crossed out first.
- Down the toilet: A select few medications contain instructions for immediate disposal after use by flushing them down the toilet. The FDA has compiled a list of these prescriptions: Medicines Recommended for Disposal by Flushing.