Expired Prescription Medications

Next time you reach for a prescription in the medicine chest, remember to read the expiration date before using it. While most prescription medicines lose potency after their expiration dates, many can become toxic and even deadly. Does this mean that all drugs start to stop working immediately after their expiration date? Most likely the answer is no. It is important not to confuse expiration date and shelf life.


Just after I started writing this article, I went to my bathroom and looked at every Rx I could find; eleven expired prescriptions were found. Two were dated prior to the year 2000. So why were they still in the home? Ignorance? Laziness? In all honesty I did not know they expired and I never bothered to check. We all have things stored in our medicine chests that probably shouldn’t be there.

Thrifty people may save prescriptions past an expiration date. In addition, seniors and those on fixed incomes believe that they cannot afford to discard unused medication; therefore they save them for future use.


Let’s just say that the expired Rx you plan on taking was dispensed by your pharmacist 2 years ago. Before your doctor wrote the prescription, he or she asked you what other drugs you were currently taking. Based on your response, the doctor may have chosen a specific drug (for you) such that a hazardous drug interaction would not occur. Currently, you may be using different drugs that would cause a dangerous and even deadly interaction with the expired medication. .

The manufacturer cannot guarantee the strength and potency of their product past the printed expiration date. If a medication undergoes prolonged exposure to light, air and moisture, the active ingredient in the product reacts, rendering a change in the drug’s potency. When aspirin is stored in the bathroom medicine cabinet, the prolonged exposure to moisture in the air makes the active ingredient in aspirin convert to acetic acid, which is why old aspirin smells like vinegar.

Many drugs loose their potency with age. This becomes a major issue when the patient is using a maintenance drug such as an inhaler or a cholesterol-lowing prescription. The medication looses its effectiveness and can place the user in an unhealthy situation. Would you want to take expired medication for sever cardiac arrhythmia?

Furthermore, medications in the liquid dosage form can actually increase in strength past the printed expiration date because some components of the liquid can evaporate, leaving more of the active ingredient. Outdated eye and ear drops may no longer be sterile and could possibly lead to an infection or irritation.

Some expired medications can become downright dangerous. Tetracyclines are “broad-spectrum” antibiotics used to treat a wide variety of infections. Doctors may prescribe these drugs to treat eye infections, pneumonia, gonorrhea, and other bacterial infections. The medicine is also used to treat acne. This common drug may be in your medicine cabinet. Tetracyclines become dangerous past their expiration dates; expired tetracyclines can cause serious damage to the kidneys.


Dr. Tedd Mitchell states that as long as you do not unseal a manufacture’s container, a drug may be good far beyond its expiration date. We know this because back in 1985 the Air Force wound up with a stockpile of medications that were just about to expire. Not wanting to throw away medicine (and money) unnecessarily, the Air Force asked the Food and Drug Administration to check the drugs for safety and effectiveness. The FDA estimated that 80% of the medication would remain safe for nearly 3 years past their expiration date.

So we ask the question again; should you throw expired prescriptions away? This decision is up to you. If you are in doubt, check with your pharmacist or your doctor.

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