e’ve all been there: After months of good health, a cold suddenly strikes, and you find yourself rooting through the dark corners of your medicine cabinet for a remedy. Or maybe a warm day in April triggers your long-dormant seasonal allergies, and you dig out an antihistamine you got last year—or was it two years ago?
A quick glance tells you the medicine is past its expiration date, but at times like these, you may wonder: How bad is it, really, to go ahead and take it—even if it is potentially a little less effective?
It may surprise you to learn that reduced potency isn't the only thing to worry about when drugs are out-of-date.
We talked to Janssen Pharmaceuticals, part of the Johnson & Johnson family of companies, to separate fact from fiction when it comes to expired medication., Chief Medical Officer for
How bad is it to take medicine that's past its expiration date?
It's really not a good idea to take expired medication at all.
The company that manufactures a particular drug works with the regulatory authority to confirm and guarantee that the medicine will still be active in the amount on the label up to expiration time. After that, there's no guarantee that it won’t decay or become ineffective.
Less potent cold medicine is obviously not ideal, but this becomes much more dangerous when you’re talking about prescription drugs, such as antibiotics, insulin, epinephrine auto-injectors or cardiac medications. These drugs have what we call a “narrow therapeutic window,” which means you need the exact amount of medicine, in the prescribed dosage—and the effect of not receiving that exact dosage could be life-threatening.
For example, a number of years ago, an antibiotic caused kidney damage when it was taken after the expiration date because it had decayed into a different chemical composition. That medication has since been changed, but that type of risk may still exist with others.
When it comes to medicine in a solution, like liquid eye drops, the risk of decay is still there, but there’s also the risk of bacterial growth. When you open the lid of the medicine, or if your skin comes into contact with it during use, bacteria may mix into the solution. If you then use the medicine after that bacteria has been allowed to grow—at a time beyond the expiration date—you end up with a high risk of contamination and infection.
Manufacturers test their medicines over a range of consistent temperature and humidity levels. The expiry date reflects those conditions, which is why it’s important to store your medication according to the instructions provided on the bottle or by your pharmacist.
What else can impact the potency and effectiveness of medication?
Heat, humidity, sunlight and other environmental factors can all accelerate the aging of a medicine.
For example, if you store a more fragile medicine in a bathroom that regularly becomes hot and humid, it may decay more rapidly and become less potent well before the expiration date.
Manufacturers test their medicines over a range of consistent temperature and humidity levels, based on likely ambient conditions. The expiry date reflects those conditions, which is why it’s very important to store your medication according to the instructions provided on the bottle or by your pharmacist.
So what should you do with your out-of-date medication?
You don't want to just casually throw medication into the garbage without first taking some precautions, especially if you have a child who could find and accidentally ingest it.
With prescription drugs, there's also the issue of identity protection: You don't want someone to pick up a bottle with your name and prescription number on it and potentially misuse that information, so make sure to remove any identifying information before discarding medication.
To learn about how you can safely and easily dispose of medication in your household waste, check out My Old Meds, which can also direct you to pharmacies and other approved locations in your area that can properly dispose of medications for you. For additional information, you can also go to FDA.gov.