This week I woke up with a pounding headache. Desperate for relief, I reached for the Tylenol. While trying to pry the lid off the bottle I noticed the small black writing on the label indicating the expiration date- two months passed. In a fit of cerebral pain, I gulped down two pills and started to get ready for work. It was only later that afternoon, after the fog of pain had cleared, that I remembered the long-past date from the medication bottle. Unsure if my relief was a placebo effect or the result of the medication and concerned about the risks of consuming expired drugs, I did a little research, and what I found was surprising.
The predominant study on expired medications was conducted by the FDA between 1993 and 1998 at the request of the military. Scientists held an extensive, long-term study on more than 100 drugs to determine whether or not drugs were safe and effective far past their displayed expiration date. The results were conclusive and showed that 90% of the tested medications were still working long after they had “expired” – in some cases as long as fifteen years later.
In light of these results, experts like Joel Davis, a former FDA expiration-date compliance chief, even go so far as to claim that most medications (excluding insulin, nitroglycerin) are “probably as durable” as these tested by the FDA. In fact, medical authorities tend to agree that, barring the rarest exceptions, it is safe to take drugs that have past their expiration dates- whether or not the drugs will still be effective is another story.
So what is the purpose of expiration dates if many of these medications are still ok to use for over a decade after the warning? What many people do not know is that expiration dates are set by drug companies, and they only specify the time frame in which the manufacturer of the drug guarantees it is safe and effective- not time frame in which the drug is actually safe and effective to use.
Drugs can be expensive, so if you’re looking for ways to prolong the shelf-life of your medications it can be as easy as changing the location of your medication storage. Medicine keeps the best in an area where temperature remains constant, away from heat, sunlight and humidity. This means that, counter to popular belief, bathrooms and kitchens with their fluctuating temperatures and humidity can be some of the worst places to store medicine. Instead, medications should be stored in a bedroom cabinet away from the damaging effects of heat and humidity.
In summary, if you are suffering from a mind-numbing headache or menstrual cramps and all you have in your bag is two-year old aspirin you should take it, and see if it helps. But be wary of changes in medicine color and consistency. If a liquid medication has separated or if those old pills have started to brown, follow your gut instinct and go buy some new stuff. Finally, if it’s important that your drug is absolutely 100% effective to treat an urgent or serious condition, you should act with care and buy new medications so that your life is not at risk. If you have any questions about the safety or effectiveness of any drug, ask your pharmacist or your primary care physician; either is a great resource when it comes to getting more information about your medications.