It’s a common scenario: You’ve got a headache and a bottle of ibuprofen in your medicine cabinet but haven’t used it in a while. You can’t remember when you bought the bottle, and when you check the label, you see that it expired six months ago. Should you take the pill or toss it?
Many of us have found ourselves in this situation and considered taking expired medication. But is it safe?
The Science Behind Expired Medicine
The expiration date on medication refers to the date after which the manufacturer cannot guarantee the full potency and safety of the medication. While some medications may be safe to use for a short time after their expiration date, it is not recommended to use any medication after its expiration date.
Over time, medication can break down and change in ways that make it less effective or even harmful. Changes in the chemical composition of medication can happen due to heat, light, moisture, and exposure to air, leading to changes in the strength, purity, and stability of the medication.
Risks of Taking Expired Medicine
Taking expired medication can lead to reduced effectiveness or harmful side effects. Expired medication may not work as intended, potentially leading to inadequate treatment or disease progression. Additionally, the chemical changes that occur in expired medication can cause it to break down into compounds that are potentially toxic and harmful to your health.
For instance, antibiotics that have passed their expiration date have been known to cause allergic reactions, kidney damage, digestive problems, and even life-threatening anaphylaxis. Some medications like aspirin and tetracycline can also cause health risks when used beyond their expiration date.
Prescription vs. Over-The-Counter Medication
Prescription and over-the-counter medications have different expiration date requirements. The FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) regulations require drug manufacturers to print an expiration date on all prescription and over-the-counter medications. However, prescription medications have shorter shelf-lives than over-the-counter medications.
The reason for this is because prescription medications tend to be more potent and require more careful storage than over-the-counter medications. Additionally, prescription medications tend to have more potential side effects or hazards. Faster expiration dates on prescriptions help ensure patients do not use medications that may have degraded over time and may not be as effective as intended.
Disposing of Expired Medication
Improper disposal of expired medication may pose environmental risks and can also lead to accidental ingestion or use of the medication by others, including pets and children. The FDA recommends disposing of medication through drug take-back programs, which periodically host events where individuals can dispose of their expired medications.
Additionally, many pharmacies have ongoing drug take-back programs that allow customers to bring in their expired medication for safe disposal. Alternatively, the FDA also advises against flushing medication down the toilet or pouring it down the drain as this can lead to environmental damage and contamination of water sources.
Situations When Taking Expired Medicine Might Be Acceptable
There are some situations where using expired medication may be acceptable, such as in emergency situations when there are no other options available. However, this should be done only under the guidance of a healthcare professional and with a thorough understanding of the potential risks. Some medications, such as epinephrine injections for severe allergic reactions, may still be effective after their expiration date.
While there are some anecdotal reports of expired medication being effective, healthcare professionals advise against relying on potentially compromised medication. Once a medication has expired, it is safer to dispose of it properly and obtain a new, unexpired dose if needed.
Alternative Methods for Obtaining Medication
If you are concerned about running out of medication or relying on potentially expired medication, the best option is to consult with a healthcare professional or pharmacist to obtain proper guidance and care. Pharmacists can also offer advice on safe storage and disposal of medication to help prevent any adverse events.
Natural remedies, supplements, and vitamins are also an option. While these products are not regulated by the FDA, many do carry the USP (United States Pharmacopeia) symbol, indicating that they have undergone testing for purity and potency.
While it’s tempting to use expired medication when we have nothing else available, it’s important to understand the risks of doing so. Expired medication may be less effective or even harmful, and proper disposal is crucial to protect other people and the environment. Healthcare professionals are available to offer guidance on appropriate medication use and disposal.
Ultimately, it’s essential to follow medication expiration dates to protect your health and ensure the safety and efficacy of your medication.