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Can You Take Medications After Their Expiration Date?

Key takeaways:

▪️The manufacturer sets medication expiration dates, and they do not always mean that the medication stops working after that date.
▪️Some medications can be harmful or cause health risks if taken after their expiration date.
▪️Storing your medications as instructed on their labels can help them keep their potency until their expiration date.
▪️There are a few different ways you can dispose of expired prescriptions and over-the-counter items, depending on what they are. ▪️The safest way is to bring your medications to a drug take-back location.

When was the last time you looked through your medicine cabinet for expired medications? If it’s been more than a few months, you may find expired medications. So what do you do with these expired medications? While some medications simply won’t work as well after expiring, others can be dangerous to take.

Generally, it’s a good practice to avoid taking any prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) medications after their printed expiration date and always consult with your healthcare provider before taking something that has expired.

In this article, you’ll learn what the expiration date on medications means and how to approach handling expired items.

What are expiration dates, and why are they important to pay attention to?
A medication’s expiration date is defined as “the final day that the manufacturer guarantees the full potency and safety of a medication.” Expiration dates are assigned to prescription medications, OTC medications, vitamins, supplements, and herbal products, but with varying amounts of oversight from organizations like the FDA.

Do written prescriptions expire?
When your healthcare provider sends in a prescription to your pharmacy, you usually have up to one year to fill the prescription before it expires in most states. The exception to this is prescriptions for controlled substances, which may not be valid after 6 months or less, depending on state laws.

If you try to fill a prescription that has expired, your pharmacy will tell you that you will need a new prescription from your provider to fill the medication. They can often request a new prescription from your provider on your behalf, especially for routine medications.

Prescription expiration dates are based on state and federal laws and are different from manufacturer expiration dates, which reflect how long a medication is guaranteed to be safe and effective. Sometimes, the medication inside your prescription vial may still be good after the prescription is no longer valid to refill. Ask your pharmacist where on your prescription label the manufacturer expiration date is, so you can be sure it is safe to keep taking it.

Medications you should never use if expired
Some medications, especially those taken to treat critical health issues, should always be taken before the manufacturer’s expiration date because they can break down quickly after expiring. Examples of these medications are nitroglycerin, insulin, EpiPens, antibiotics, and birth control.

There are no studies that show using these medications after their expiration date causes serious harm. The risk is related to how effective the medication is. Taking them after their expiration dates could cause a serious health risk or consequence because the medications are not as effective.

How to store medications to ensure their effectiveness and longevity
Heat and moisture are the biggest factors that affect the breakdown of medications. Both prescription and OTC medications should be stored in a cool, dry location such as a kitchen cabinet, dresser drawer, closet shelf, or storage box unless otherwise instructed on the labeling. This will help your medications remain safe and effective up until their expiration date.

You should avoid storing your medications in a damp bathroom cabinet because they could break down faster than usual in the high-moisture, high-temperature environment. If a potential storage location is near a hot appliance, like an oven, it may be best to find a new spot farther away from heat sources. Medications stored in common areas of your home (living room, kitchen) should be secured so they are not easily accessible, especially if you have children or pets.

It’s important to note that some medications have different storage requirements. For example, some oral liquid antibiotics and insulins may need to be stored in the refrigerator. Read the labeling on your medication carefully for storage instructions, and contact your pharmacist if you’re unsure.

How to properly dispose of expired medications:
If you do have expired medication, there are several ways you can dispose of it. If you still have the label information that came with the medication, you can look for specific instructions the manufacturer may have provided about how to dispose of it safely. However, not all medications have this information included.

According to the FDA, disposing of your medications at a drug take-back location is the safest way to get rid of old medications. Many health systems, police departments, and community pharmacies offer unused medication drop boxes where you can simply place any medications to be disposed of in the bin.

The bottom line
Overall, it’s best only to use medications before their expiration date passes. While some products may still be effective for a year or more after their expiration date, there is no sure way to know if expired medications in your cabinets at home are still working properly. You should always speak with your healthcare provider before taking an expired medication. Storing medications as recommended on the label and disposing of expired items properly are essential for ensuring medication safety in your home.


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