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What You Need to Know About Expired Prescription Drugs

Avatar for Gaye Levy Gaye Levy  |  Updated: November 24, 2020
What You Need to Know About Expired Prescription Drugs

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The topic of using expired prescription drugs comes up frequently in survival and preparedness circles.  Although there are many articles detailing with the efficacy of outdated meds, one question I get over and over again is “what do I do when the meds run out?”

Whereas there is no single clear answer, one thing we can all start to do now is hang on to our old, unused meds.  For the most part and with very few exceptions, they will be viable for two to twelve years beyond their expiration date.  The secret is to keep them in a cool, dark, location that is not too dissimilar from your food storage.

What You Need to Know About Expired Prescription Drugs | Backdoor Survival

In another exclusive article for Backdoor Survival, Dr. Joe Alton, a medical doctor who is well versed in survival medicine, is here today to give us an update on the use of expired drugs in a survival setting. In addition, for those of you that have asked, he is providing us with links you can use to initiate your own research on this important topic.

Of course, as with anything preparedness related, let your own good judgement prevail.

An Update on Expired Drugs in Survival Settings

By Joe Alton, MD

In normal times, replacing expired medicines isn’t a major issue. You call your physician and get a refill for “fresh” meds. Medicine bottle descriptions and those in print and online sources tell you to discard any drug that has gone expired, a recommendation so common that it’s considered standard.

You might be surprised to know, however, that expiration dates have only been government-mandated since 1979. The expiration date is simply the last day that the pharmaceutical company will guarantee 100% potency of the product. In other words, you won’t grow a horn in the middle of your forehead or other ill effect if you take the drug the week after it expires. Indeed, it is rare for expired drugs, especially in pill or capsule form, to be any more risky than the non-expired versions.

This is an important issue to those preparing medically for survival scenarios. If you believe that some disaster will take society to the brink, then you should also understand that such a scenario also means that it’s unlikely that pharmaceutical companies will be functioning to manufacture drugs. Therefore, at one point or another, a well-supplied survival medic will have to make a decision regarding the use of an expired medication.

This is a decision that also must be made by government agencies such as FEMA and the Department of Defense. Federal warehouses store tens of millions of dollars’ worth of drugs meant for use in peacetime disasters. When these drugs expired, the forklifts came out and huge quantities of life-saving medicines were discarded.

Over time, even the government began to think, “Wow. This is getting expensive. I wonder if these drugs are still good?”. And with that thought, the Shelf Life Extension Program (SLEP) was developed.  The SLEP tested over a hundred drugs in their possession and found that the vast majority were 100% potent 2 to 12 years beyond their listed expiration dates.

These findings led the government to put out extensions of expiration dates for certain drugs as needed, such as the 5 year extension given the anti-viral drug Tamiflu (oseltamivir) during the 2009 swine flu epidemic. These are referred to as “emergency use authorizations”.

Despite this research, you’ll see opinions from those in academia or elsewhere that state all medications are dangerous when expired and should be discarded. These opinions are fine in normal times, but members of the preparedness community should at least consider holding on to medications that might no longer be available in times of trouble.

Think about this situation:  Let’s say that a true catastrophe has occurred that has taken out the grid and modern medical facilities for the foreseeable future. Your daughter is fading from a bacterial infection. You have an expired bottle of antibiotics. She’s dying. Are you going to use the expired drug or not. You decide.

Medicines, expired or not, should be stored in cool, dry, dark conditions. Their potency will fade twice as fast if stored at 90 degrees than if stored at 50 degrees. Freezing them, however, is rarely necessary. Even if stored in suboptimal conditions, a capsule or tablet that hasn’t changed color, smell, or consistency is probably still worth keeping for austere settings. Of course, in normal times, seek out qualified medical professionals whenever and wherever they are available.

Note: You may have read about kidney and liver toxicity in expired tetracycline products. The majority of these occurred before the formulation was changed some years ago. Having said that, Tetracycline is not on my list of top ten antibiotics to have in your medical storage. It is a first generation drug with reports of widespread resistance, and I would prefer you have doxycycline instead. It’s important to know that all drugs have side effects or restrictions in children, pregnant women, and patients with certain medical conditions. Take time to learn indications, dosage, and side effects of all medicines you keep in your medical supplies.

For more information on the Shelf Life Extension Program, click the links below:

Federal Shelf Life Extension Program
Shelf Life Extension Program (FDA)
Stability profiles of drug products extended beyond labeled expiration dates

The Final Word

Although I have shared information on the use of expired prescription drugs in the past, naysayers still comment and chide, quick to criticize the practice of saving old meds.  To that I say: do you own research and decide for yourself.  If faced with a dire medical condition where normal sources of medical and drug supplies are limited or non-existent, wouldn’t it be worth the risk to reach for an expired drug?

The ultimate decision is up to you but I, for one, know what I would do.

Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!

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 Below you will find the items that are first aid related and also to the use of Fish Antibiotics when traditional pharmacies and medical personnel are not available.  If you are interested in learning more, read Why Store Fish Antibiotics For Survival.

AMOXFIN (500mg/ 30Capsules):  Read the review and decide for yourself. This is 100% pure amoxicillin, designed to keep your fishies healthy.  There is also Fin Mox Forte (500mg/100 Capsules): but there are not as many reviews.

Thomas Labs Fish Mox Amoxicillin 100 Count 250mg Capsules:  The prices on fish antibiotics from Wal-Mart are some of the best out there.  500mg capsules are available here and shipping is free.

Stretch Bandage Wrap, 1” 30 rolls: I first learned about self-adhesive bandages when my dog came home from the vet such a bandage wrapped around his leg.  A light went off telling me I needed to add some to my first-aid kit.  And so I did.  This is a fantastic price and rivals the price at the farm supply.  I rarely use old-fashioned band aids any more.  You are going to love this stuff.

Quikclot Sport Brand Advanced Clotting Sponge: A must for any first aid or emergency kit, Quikclot Sport stops moderate to severe bleeding until further medical help is available.

CELOX First Aid Temporary Traumatic Wound Treatment, 10-Pack: These small packets of granules will stop bleeding within 30 seconds. To use, pour directly on a wound and apply pressure; it won’t sting or burn. Also safe for pets.  I like that the small packets are portable.

Tincture of Benzoin: This is another one of those items I had never heard of.  Its purpose is to hold a bandage or dressing in place.

ProAdvantage Sterile Butterfly Closure Bandages:  I checked my first aid kit and only had a few of these.

Israeli Battle Dressing, 6-inch Compression Bandage: This is another inexpensive, yet critical item. Combat medics, trauma doctors, and emergency responders all recommend this Israeli Battle Dressing (IBD) for the treatment of gunshot wounds, puncture wounds, deep cuts, and other traumatic hemorrhagic injuries.

New-Skin Liquid Bandage, First Aid Liquid Antiseptic:  I have been using New Skin for years.  It is an antiseptic, invisible, flexible, and waterproof.  It works.


Third Edition:  The SURVIVAL MEDICINE Handbook

A frequent question I get on Backdoor Survival has to do with healthcare matters when there is no doctor around. This is the definite source of survival medical information for all Prepper’s and is my go-to bible for survival medicine.

Survival Medicine Handbook 2016

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8 Responses to “What You Need to Know About Expired Prescription Drugs”

  1. On July 26, 2000, the US medical community received a titanic shock to the system, when one of its most respected and honored public-health experts, Dr. Barbara Starfield, revealed her findings on healthcare in America. The landmark Starfield study (//, “Is US health really the best in the world?”, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), came to the following conclusions:
    Every year in the US there are:
    12,000 deaths from unnecessary surgeries;
    7,000 deaths from medication errors in hospitals;
    20,000 deaths from other errors in hospitals;
    80,000 deaths from infections acquired in hospitals;
    106,000 deaths from FDA-approved correctly prescribed medicines.
    The total of medically-caused deaths in the US every year is 225,000 or 2.25 million deaths per decade.
    This makes the medical system the third leading cause of death in the US, behind heart disease and cancer.

    As if that isn’t bad enough, it is not only prescription medications one needs to avoid but also OTC (over-the-counter) medications. In 2005, the journal Hepatology published the following study: Acetaminophen-induced acute liver failure: results of a United States multicenter, prospective study (// The conclusion: 51% of ALL acute liver failure was due to one chemical – acetaminophen, better known as Tylenol. Acetaminophen is the most common drug ingredient in America with more than 600 medicines (prescription and OTC) containing acetaminophen.

    As Hippocrates stated over 2,500 years ago, let food be thy medicine and medicine by thy food.

    More recently, Aristotle had this to say: Doctors are men who prescribe medicines of which they know little, to cure diseases of which they know less, in human beings of whom they know nothing.

    Even more recently, Soren Kierkegaard offered us this truth: “There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is refuse to believe what is true.”

    The truth is that we are all responsible for our own health. It’s time to wake up to this truth.

  2. Thanks for a candid, genuine, and concerned article. The military is the best in regards to “real world” approaches to serious issues.

    I normally do not trust companies who pursue profits; and, I have learned not to trust facts when all facts (whether conservative or liberal) have not been presented. My experience with lobbyists during hearings, the government (who cater to lobbyists), and corporations represent the money oriented hound establishment. Also, my experience within a Fortune 500 corporation also has provided me insight as to insidious positioning regarding perceptions – swaying the public/consumers.

    Therefore I must make decisions based on beliefs. I believe this article. It also makes sense.

    Thankfully there are those – who help us – counterbalance the ominous political and corporate establishment.


  3. Hey there Gaye (and everyone else) I remember reading about the military doing testing on shelf life (in order to save 100’s of millions restocking on pills to I looked again and found some info to share 😉

    Before anyone spouts off the ‘Expired tetracycline can cause a dangerous syndrome resulting in damage to the kidneys.’ that drug was reformulated in the early 70’s –
    Current tetracycline preparations have been reformulated with different fillers to minimize degradation and are unlikely to have this effect.” (The Medical Letter, Vol. 44, Issue 1142, October 28, 2002.)

    The research letter authors noted that an analysis of SLEP results in 2009 showed that 88% of 122 different drugs stored in unopened, original containers in controlled environments at military facilities retained potency for at least one year past their expiration date. The average extension time for all drugs was 6.5 years, while the maximum to date has been more than 23 years.

    “People think that, upon expiration, drugs suddenly turn toxic or lose all their potency,” says Philip Alper, professor of medicine at University of California at San Francisco. In his own practice, Dr. Alper says, “I frequently hear – from patients who can’t afford medicine – that they have thrown away expired drugs.” He says companies should be required to test drugs for longer periods and set later expiration dates when results warrant.

    TIL A U.S. FDA study showed 90% of more than 100 drugs, prescription and over-the-counter, “were perfectly good to use even 15 years after the expiration date.” The U.S. military saved $260 million in five years by not discarding expired drugs. — (link to pdf on top of page) —

    The fact that expiration dates on pill antibiotics are a marketing fraud has been widely know for years. In an article entitled “Drug Expiration Dates – Do They Mean Anything?”, The Harvard Heath Letter summarizes a 20-year study done by the FDA for the U.S. military:

  4. I’d rather have expired meds than none at all. My partner gets antibiotics every six months for his dental cleaning, he only needs 4 for the appointment so we save the remaing 8. Our antibiotics are free at our primary grocery store/Pharmacy. Ask your doctor for samples at your next appointment, mine always comes thru with naproxen, migraine meds. At my next appointment, I’m going to get an RX for an Epi Pen, it’s the only item I don’t have in my bug out bag.

  5. if it is a matter of saving the person or not…I will always go with anything that will work.The whole idea of preparedness is to prepare for the worst and a family member dying is the worst. So… expired drugs will be on my list pf preparations after the SHTF.

  6. for anyone with a desire, there is no end to learning. But it is always best when done for fun. Enjoy Learning.

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