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The Myth of Expiration Dates on Drugs and Prescription Meds

Avatar for Gaye Levy Gaye Levy  |  Updated: November 20, 2020
The Myth of Expiration Dates on Drugs and Prescription Meds

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In the aftermath of disaster, you evacuate your home with your family and your bug-out bag.  For one reason another, you overlooked swapping out your three year old medications and now are faced with a dilemma.  Are they still safe to use?

I am not a medical professional but everything that I have read says, yes, they are not only safe but that the expiration dates on drugs as printed or stamped on those bottles represent more of a CYA for the manufacturers than any thing else.

Myth of Expiration Dates on Drugs - Backdoor Survival

According to the Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide:

Most of what is known about drug expiration dates comes from a study conducted by the Food and Drug Administration at the request of the military. With a large and expensive stockpile of drugs, the military faced tossing out and replacing its drugs every few years. What they found from the study is 90% of more than 100 drugs, both prescription and over-the-counter, were perfectly good to use even 15 years after the expiration date.

So the expiration date doesn’t really indicate a point at which the medication is no longer effective or has become unsafe to use. Medical authorities state expired drugs are safe to take, even those that expired years ago. A rare exception to this may be tetracycline, but the report on this is controversial among researchers. It’s true the effectiveness of a drug may decrease over time, but much of the original potency still remains even a decade after the expiration date.

Excluding nitroglycerin, insulin, and liquid antibiotics, most medications are as long-lasting as the ones tested by the military. Placing a medication in a cool place, such as a refrigerator, will help a drug remain potent for many years.

Is the expiration date a marketing ploy by drug manufacturers, to keep you restocking your medicine cabinet and their pockets regularly? You can look at it that way.

Those are pretty strong words don’t you think?  Marketing ploy, restocking their pockets?  Given my ongoing suspicion of big pharma, I have always doubted those one year expiration dates on prescription drugs and have for the most part, disregarded them.

Travatan with Expiration Date

As a matter of fact, when I asked my eye doctor about the shelf life of the drops I take for glaucoma, he said “forever”.  And yet, as you can see, an expiration date is clearly stamped on the package.

11 Facts About Expiration Dates on Prescription Drugs

1.  The expiration date on the package or bottle is only a guideline and is often meaningless.

The expiration date is the manufacturer’s guarantee. It does not indicate a point when a medication loses potency and is no longer effective or becomes harmful.

2.  A drug loses potency the day it is manufactured.  There is no magic date when is suddenly looses its effectiveness.

3. Solid dosage forms, such as tablets and capsules, are the most stable past their expiration date. Drugs that exist in solution or as a reconstituted suspension may not have the required potency if used when outdated.

4. Drugs in liquid form (solutions, suspensions) are not as stable as solid dosage forms (tablet, powder, capsule).

5.  Contrary to common belief, there is little scientific evidence that expired drugs are toxic. There are virtually no reports of toxicity from degradation products of outdated drugs.

6.  Any liquid injectable that has become cloudy or discolored may not be safe and should be discarded.

7.  Storage conditions matter.  The enemies of food are also the enemies of drugs: light, oxygen, moisture, and extreme temperatures will affect the stability of all medications.

8.  Appearance counts.  If the drugs look or smell odd, don’t take them.  So, for example, do not use tablets that are crumbling, or suspensions that remain separate despite vigorous shaking.  If it is suspicious, do not use it.

9.  Certain medications are known to have a short shelf life including nitroglycerin, insulin, liquid antibiotics, and epinephrine.  In addition, tetracycline is known to become toxic after a period of time.

10.  If you are taking life-sustaining medications, check with your doctor or pharmacist about the true shelf life.  If you are in doubt, stock up on those life-sustaining drugs to the exclusion of others.

11.  Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.  There are some wild claims out there so take the time to do your research now, while you still have time.

What about over-the-counter drugs?

Let me put it this way.  If your life does not depend on it – say you have a headache or common cold and want relief – take the expired over-the-counter medication and be done with it.  Or better yet, seek an herbal or other natural remedy such as essential oils (try lavender).

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The Final Word

As anyone who has spent some time in the military will tell you, outdated drugs exist and have been used on an everyday basis for years.  That said, you are on your own.  Do your own research and don’t trust my word for it. I am not a medical professional and do not know your particular medical condition.

On the other hand, you may be are kicking yourself for throwing away all of those “expired” prescription meds over the years.  Alas, there is no looking back, only forward.  If you have a drawer full of expired meds, consider sorting through them now to determine whether they will be useful down the road.  And if you decide to keep them, make sure they are stored in a cool, dry place that is away from direct sunlight.  Consider them precious, if not for yourself, than for someone else in a barter situation.

Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!
Gaye

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45 Responses to “The Myth of Expiration Dates on Drugs and Prescription Meds”

  1. I recently used some Terramycin I had bought back in 1999 for the y2k scare. I had to use a bit more, but it worked . thanks again for recap on this topic.

  2. another good topic of discussion. thanks for the thoughts! after having worked in the retail industry for a number of years you would cringe at the amount of food and other items that are tossed out for being “expired”. of course the manufacturers and the retailers that sell the items want to keep themselves covered just in case. seems like there should be a better system for all the waste.

    • Yeah, I just left a big home improvement store that I worked at for the past 2 years (won’t say which one), but the amount of stuff they waste is disgusting. I saw them throw out entire pallets of products: perfectly good Christmas decorations (lights..etc), gardening stuff, lumber, food, stuff like packages of 12 light bulbs with just one broken bulb….the list goes on and on. They even told employees that if they sold the stuff they were throwing out, they would be fired.

  3. I have cases of 500 calorie cans of nutrition used for tube feeding my son, who passed away. It is now outdated but I can’t imagine it could not be helpful to someone, somewhere. It has been in our house, no extreme heat or cold. Less than a year out dated. Is it still good and WHERE could I find a place that can use it?

    • Food pantry’s will often accept expired food, check with one local to you.

  4. With a kid who has a severe food allergy that has resulted in anaphylaxis shock on two prior occasions, we are frequently buying epi pens. The manufacture moved their “shelf life” date in from 20 months to 18 months and now requires that you buy a two-pack instead of one. The FDA then requires the pharmacist to slap a 12 month expiry date sticker from the date we purchase the pen. The school, after school care, and each summer camp require the pen to not be expired. So we end up buying 2 – 4 epi pens every year.

    Then there was a Canadian (NIH) study in May 2000 that measured the available epinephrine in an epi pen at 1 – 90 months past expiration. While the study concludes that a damaged pen is ineffective and older pens are less effective than a non-expired one, even the oldest cohort of undamaged pens tested were 7.5 years old and only lost about 13% of their effectiveness…

    • am, where do you get “even the oldest cohort of undamaged pens tested were 7.5 years old and only lost about 13% of their effectiveness…”? The oldest pens had lost about 25% (EpiPen) and 40% (EpiPen Jr) of the labeled dose. While that suggests you can use the pens, you won’t get anywhere near the the recommended epinephrine dose. You can read the paper here: //www.jacionline.org/article/S0091-6749%2800%2980028-7/fulltext

  5. I have many times had to use outdated medications. Sometimes, those medications were 4-5 years old, and even more. They still worked just fine. Of course, they had been stored out of light, heat, and moisture, but never-the-less, they were still good. This includes anti-biotics, pain medications of both sorts (nsaids & opioids)as well as vitamin/mineral supplements, etc. I bought out a closeout of a brand name probiotic (now 4 years old after sitting here waiting for me to use them)…it still does the job the brand new bottles do. So I think, expiration dates are for sales only. The pharma companies are just CYA…and making money they wouldn’t otherwise. Just like, there are cures out there, known in other countries, that kill cancers, and other terminal illnesses, but the good ol’ boys in the USA can’t be havin’ people get well…why, how would the medical/pharmaceutical industries make their money if people got well? HA! I’m on to their game, and choose not to play anymore. Have a nice day.

    • Have you researched Royal Raymond Rife, or Dr Hulda Clark? They are just two of many many people that were curing many “incurable” deseases that had their lives and findings ridiculed into obscurity by the “great” AMA. Doctors now are trained with a “give this pill for those symptoms” mindset. They seldom try to find what is really causing the problem.

  6. I have always heard that when aspirin has a strong vinegar smell that it is bad. However, I have taken vinegary aspirin and it still worked! And in a survival situation I would not hesitate to take any medication for pain or a bad headache, even if it expired years ago. If you are hurting or have a bad headache you cannot function at your fullest.

    • I read somewhere that the military is still using aspirin from WWII. I do not hesitate to use expired meds. I also don’t rely on food expiration dates. For years, I owned a “scratch and dent” grocery store. Most of the product was expired. As long as the can is not bloated or leaking, it is safe.

  7. Be aware Doxycycline is deadly when it expires. There are a few that become hazardous but generally most are ok. Most medications only loose potency and then only after several years

  8. I would think that the over the counter meds would store longer if packaged like our dehydrated foods. Why don’t someone like Mountain House, start packaging some meds, aspirin, stomach antiacids, etc. in small cans? Remember, you heard it here first.

  9. Thank you another thorough article on important topics. I would imagine we all have some unused or expired meds in our cabinets and now we can feel safe about storing and using them, if the time comes that we need to.

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