It has happened the most vigilant among us: a hacking cough wakes you up at 3 in the morning and, bleary eyed and half asleep, you reach for a bottle of over-the-counter medication. Just as you’re about to attack your symptoms with a tablespoon, you glance at the bottle and realize the medication has expired.
Should you go for it anyway? What’s the worst that could happen? Actually, that all depends on the type of medication.
“If you find an expired medication you should dispose of the medication; that’s the easy answer,” says Dr. Sherry Ross, OB/GYN and Women’s Health Expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center. “There are some medications that can be dangerous, or even fatal, if you consume them once they have gone beyond their expiration date. Medications that can be dangerous once expired include Fentanyl, Morphine Sulfate, Diazepam, Methadone, Acetaminophen and oxycodone to name a few.”
A manufacturer is required to guarantee the safety and potency of a drug up to a certain date, which is is indicated by the expiration date, says Dr. Kristine Arthur, an internist at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center. If you decide to try your luck after that date, the safety and potency of the medication cannot be guaranteed. Things that can affect this include how the bottle has been stored and when it was first opened.
“In reality many medications last longer than the expiration date when tested–even months or years beyond the date. That being said, it is very difficult to know which medications do last longer,” Arthur says, adding that she tells her patients to discard medications after the expiration date and follows this rule for herself and her family. “There are other factors that make a difference as well including how the bottle is stored: temperature, light, humidity, etc. Also, if a seal has been broken and a bottle opened that can make a big difference in the shelf life of medications. Medications that come in tablets and capsules tend to last longer than liquids, particularly ones that have to be refrigerated.”
Life-saving medications should always be up to date, Arthur says. These include medications like epinephrine for severe allergies, nitroglycerin for chest pain, and insulin for diabetes. “When it comes to vitamins, herbs and other supplements (which may or may not have preservatives) sometimes it comes down to a common sense approach,” Arthur says. :Anything that has changed color or smells odd should be discarded–even if it hasn’t reached its expiration date.”
If you have accidentally ingested an expired headache tablet or other capsule meant to treat a minor ache or pain, Ross says the majority of these medications are safe to take beyond their expiration date, though the potency is not at 100 percent.
In other words: don’t freak out if this has happened to you, but do throw out expired medicine as you go and stock up on fresh OTC medications as needed.
For more health tips, check out the ‘5-second’ rule for eating food off the floor isn’t true and why you should make your bed every morning.
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