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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).


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!

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

  1. While the main issue is lost potency, the exp dates are often VERY conservative for the legal protection of the manufacturer. If you get an infection and take antibiotics that are expired and it doesn’t cure you . . . that’s on you, even if the manufacturer COULD have done a better job making a more stable drug – it was labelled and you were “warned” about it. Use expired drugs at your own risk, make sure they are not degradable into anything toxic, and be prepared to have extra on hand in case you need to increase the dosage due to lost effectiveness (don’t do this with drugs that require precise dosing).

    Furthermore, there are other options for anti-ineffectives which may also be effective. Bacteriophages and vaccines, for example, are classic tools that are not available in the US (for human use). Russia has 4 different vaccines for staph infections (including alpha toxoid vaccines both therapeutic and preventative), and in the US there is one for dogs that includes bacteriophages (it was derived from human staph strains, but only used on dogs now as the FDA prefer antibiotics for people).

    Someday, if you aren’t among the black-market vaccinated, you may not survive . . . but take that with a grain of salt, just like you would a manufacturer’s expiration date . . . peace

  2. I thank you so much for taking the time to write this article. about eight years ago when I was going through a financial situation my doctor let me in on the little secret, the prescriptions don’t really expire. So about 8 years ago I started stockpiling my unused medications. I recently used 8 year old doxycycline for a bladder infection. Imagine my surprise when a few minutes later I was sitting on my bed and felt an urgent need to burp. My burp,was actually a large ball of what looked like smoke! My throat and esophagus began hurting and felt like they had been burned. I began to feel sick and was concerned my airway may swell shut. I immediately grabbed my phone! (Don’t we all in an emergency)….. Google what prescriptions are bad to take after expired. I was given an option of articles to read. This was my 3rd choice. The first two were written by medical professionals and made no mention of tetracycline becoming toxic after it’s expiration date. Your article however did mention this and prompted me to look farther into the tetracycline. I found that doxycycline and tetracycline are closely related and both change their chemical composition and became toxic over time,thanks doc! I was sick for about a day, I did not have to go to the emergency room. However I did apparently pass out or fall asleep in the bathtub while getting ready to have my husband take me to e.r. when he got home. He woke me up 2 hours after I got in. I just wanted to let you know I appreciate all of the research you must have done and thank you for your help.

  3. Lets say there is a apocalyptic situation and people have to stay in bunkers for few years. Although we can store food but storing the medicine will be an issue with such short expiry dates. Sick People will either suffer or die if followed the guidelines. Or do pharma have to go for another set of approval and manufaturing the drugs that lasts longer? What about impact on the crew which has been selected for Mars mission? They need to carry drugs with them for infinte expiry date. Wish govt To answer these questions else allow people to take these drugs even after the expiry.

  4. It is very dangerous to take advice from the internet, especially in this case. I work for a firm that tests many of the medications mentioned. As time goes on, the potency of any drug secreases. Expiration dates indicate that the drug is still at the strength posted on the label, after that time, the drug has been analytically shown to no longer be the strength as printed on the label. Sometimes this isn’t important, but other times, if you need the drug at the strength it says on the label and you use an expired drug, it will most definitely not be the strength that it once was. To say that expiration dates are arbitrarily made by the FDA is just plain incorrect and clearly the person that wrote this misinformation doesn’t have a clue as to the stringent stability tests that contract research organizations get paid to show how long a particular drug lasts at ideal conditions and at accelerated degradation conditions. Whomever wrote this bases their arguments on news clippings fron the Internet and not actual data. If you believe half of the claims on this site, good luck. Also, the placebo effect is powerful, so that might explain some of these personal accounts of others who agree with this hack. I have a PhD in Toxicology and work at a firm that tests numerous drugs that save lives. This article is full of dangerous premises. Beware of what you read on the internwt, especially from someone who obviously is way out of their league in this field. HACK!

    • I had expired medication and called the pharmacy ( one of the big ones). The pharmacist who was a friend told me to take it. He said that the expiration date was mandated. He said that when the drugs in the pharmacy ‘ expire’ they just repackage it and slap a new expiration date on it.

  5. Oh wow, you have no idea how timely this is. I’ve always been suspicious of the “expiration date” on most medications. Yes, I firmly believe pharma companies dupe us for financial gain. One thing for sure, I’ll never hesitate to take another outdated medication in pill or capsule form. Again, THANK YOU for this!!!

  6. Ok, don’t store tetracycline or doxycycline. Does anyone know how long you can store cephalexin. For me, a better question would be how to reseaarch this. I have not had any luck, all I get is don’t use exspired meds. Can You store Celftriaxone in the frig, and for how long? any ideas for how long you can keep Mupirocin cream around?

  7. Obviously, the author of this article knows nothing about the pharmaceutical industry. Expiration dates a marketing ploy by pharma companies?? What a laugh! They are REQUIRED dates, based on hard data, by the FDA. Many pharma companies WANT a longer expiration date! It HELPS their sales!

    Granted, drugs don’t instantly “go bad” the day after their expiration date, but their efficacy is probably lower, and contaminants have likely increased to an unacceptable level — that is, you’re no longer getting the “pure” medication.

    So if you want to take a medication that has passed its expiration date, that’s up to you. But don’t complain about unexpected side effects, or worse yet — serious complications due to ineffective / less effective medication (such as an epi pen that doesn’t give its full dose, or an asthma inhaler that is suboptimal in potency). There are certain meds you just shouldn’t risk your life with.

    • I was in the navy, a corpsman, and while on a ship and responsible for our medical supplies I can tell you for fact this article is correct. The lot numbers of medications are indeed extended from months to over a decade. It is the Pharm industry that promotes the fallacy of an “expiration” date. Through their lobbying that fallacy is now incorporated into our legal system. This is a topic this article did not broach. But the reality exists in certain jurisdictions that a prescription drug expired now puts you in jeopardy of breaking the law. By being in possession of a medication that may be scheduled. Which is a double standard if the reality is that pill has an extension on its expiration. If you think this is done for safety I would say you’re being naïve. It’s done for money. Or you could take the other side of the argument and say the studies which are sponsored by the gov are done to just save money and it’s the recipient of an extended shelf life drug that’s getting screwed. Either way someone’s getting the shaft you choose.

  8. While I don’t mind attacking/ blaming big pharma the 1yr expiration dates have more to do with FDA regulations. You see “speed to market” is a major factor for drug companies. In the process of getting FDA clearance they must store and test the storage length of a drug. This length and proof must be included on the application to the FDA. If they conducted 15 years of testing before applying to the FDA people would accuse them of not bringing new drugs to market just to keep people sick and on less effective meds longer. The information is good for people to know though (concerning the extended shelf lives). Thanks for posting.

    • I agree – the FDA is full of it. We witnessed them shut down our favorite dairy for an alleged listeria outbreak. They did press releases and completely ran the small family operation out of business and forever tarnished their name. 3 months later they realized their tests were incorrect, the dairy did nothing wrong, and did not even issue an apology.

      Just a few months ago we witnessed them shut down the DNA service because, and they literally listed this as a reason in their letter, they were worried women would see they had the BRCA markers in their DNA test results and rush out to lop off their breasts without getting a second opinion from a doctor. That sort of insanity perfectly defines today’s FDA.

    • Well, you’ve got to give them “credit?” for approving aspartame – one of the worse poisons you can find to sweeten your food!

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