How long can you use medicine after its expiration date?

How long can you use medicine after its expiration date?

4 Nov 2022
Stefano Mirabello
Stefano Mirabello
Medical Writer

You open your medicine cabinet to grab your bottle of ibuprofen, and you notice that it expired a few months ago. Can you still take it? Or should you throw it away and buy a new bottle? You wonder if the expiration date is more like a suggestion than a hard-and-fast rule.

Here’s what you need to know about using expired medication. The answer, as is often the case with medical questions, isn’t straightforward. But we’re here to help give you a better understanding of when you can safely keep taking your meds and when it’s time to throw them out for good.

How are drug expiration dates worked out?

Every medication, whether prescription medication or over-the-counter (OTC), has an expiry date.

It’s important to know the expiration date of your drugs, as taking expired medication can be ineffective at best and dangerous at worst. But how are these dates arrived at?

Expiration dates are determined by drug manufacturers based on how long a medication will retain its full potency and efficacy.

The process begins with the manufacturer conducting extensive stability testing on the drug. This involves storing the medication under a range of different conditions.

including high and low temperatures and observing how it breaks down over time.

Based on these tests, manufacturers develop what is called a shelf life, which is the maximum amount of time that the drug can be stored without losing potency.

Once the manufacturer has a good understanding of the drug’s stability, they can calculate an expiration date. This date is generally set at the point when the drug is expected to lose 5% of its potency.

However, it’s important to note that this is only an estimate, and drugs may remain effective for longer or lose potency more quickly than anticipated. As a result, it’s always best to err on the side of caution and check with your pharmacist before taking any expired medication.


What is the difference between shelf life and expired medications?

The shelf life of medicine is the period of time during which the medicine remains effective. After the shelf life has expired, the medicine may no longer be effective.

Shelf life is determined by a number of factors, including the stability of the active ingredients, exposure to light and heat, and packaging. The term expired medicine on the other hand means ineffective and could potentially be harmful.

In general, most medicines have a shelf life of 2-5 years. However, some medicines have a shorter shelf life, and some have a longer shelf life. For example, liquid antibiotics tend to expire faster than pills because they’re more susceptible to degradation once they’re opened.

Solid dosage forms, such as tablets and capsules, are most stable past their expiration date. Liquids and creams tend to have a shorter shelf life than pills or capsules.

It is important to check the expiration date on your medicine bottles and only use medicines that are within their shelf life. If you have any questions about the shelf life of a particular medicine, you should consult your pharmacist or doctor.

What is the first thing that happens when medicines expire?

When medicine expires, the first thing that happens is the active ingredients start to break down. Over time, the strength of the medicine decreases, and it becomes less effective. In some cases, expired medicine can even become toxic.

That’s why it’s important to always check the expiration date before taking any medication.

What medications become toxic after expiration?

Most people are aware that medications can expire, but many don’t know that some medications can become toxic after their expiration date. It’s important to understand which medications fall into this category so that you can avoid taking them after they’ve expired. Some common examples of medications that become toxic after expiration include:

  • Certain antibiotics e.g. tetracycline. Expired tetracycline can cause serious kidney damage. In addition, antibiotic resistance may occur with sub-potent medications
  • Heart medication e.g. nitroglycerin. Nitroglycerin has a short shelf life and expires quickly after it is manufactured. This is because the medication is unstable and decomposes over time. Once nitroglycerin expires, it becomes less effective and can even be dangerous
  • Insulin. After some time, insulin expires and becomes ineffective. Insulin is a protein, and proteins can change shape over time. The alteration in structure affects how well the insulin works. If you use expired insulin, it may not lower your blood sugar as well as it should, which could lead to serious consequences such as diabetic ketoacidosis. Expired insulin may not be as safe as fresh insulin, as it may contain harmful contaminants
  • Eye drops. After their expiration date, eye drops can no longer be used because they may no longer be sterile. When you use eye drops that are not sterile, you run the risk of introducing bacteria into your eye, which could lead to an infection. Expired eye drops may not be as effective at relieving symptoms because the active ingredients may have degraded
  • Epinephrine (EpiPen). This medication is used for life-threatening allergic reactions and expires after one year. After the expiration date, the medication may no longer be effective in treating an allergic reaction. Epinephrine may also break down and become poisonous

When these medications expire, their chemical composition changes and they can no longer be considered safe for use. In some cases, taking expired medication can be more harmful than taking no medication at all.

How to store medication safely?

Proper storage of prescription drugs and non-prescription drugs is important to ensure that it remains effective and doesn’t pose a risk to your health. Here are some tips for storing medication safely:

  • Keep the medication in its original container. This will help to ensure that you take the correct dose and that the expiration date is visible
  • Store the medication in a cool, dry place. Heat and moisture can damage medication, making it less effective. Avoid bathroom cabinets to store medication
  • Keep medications out of reach of children and pets. Children should never be allowed to handle or take medication without adult supervision, and pets can sometimes get into medications if they’re left within reach
  • Never share your medication with others
  • Keep a list of all the medications you take, including over-the-counter drugs and supplements, and show it to your doctor or pharmacist before starting any new medications

By being mindful of these things, you can help to ensure that your medications are effective and safe.

How do you dispose of old medication?

The safest way to dispose of old and unused medication is to take them to your pharmacist, who can dispose of them safely for you.

You should never throw unused or expired medicines in the rubbish bin or flush them down the toilet.

The next time you find an old bottle of medication in the back of your medicine cabinet, don’t assume that it’s still good just because it hasn’t reached its expiration date yet.

It’s important that your drug is absolutely 100% effective, you might want to consider buying a new bottle.

It’s always best to check with your pharmacist before taking any expired medications. That way, you can be sure that you’re getting the correct dosage and that the drug is still effective.

Remember to store medicines properly and don’t use expired medicines it’s not worth the risk!

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