Drug Expiration Dates – Are Expired Drugs Still Safe To Take?

Drug Expiration Dates – Are Expired Drugs Still Safe To Take?

We know, you've been there before. You have a splitting headache and you scour your medicine cabinet for some headache

We know, you've been there before. You have a splitting headache and you scour your medicine cabinet for some headache tablets. Then you find some, but the problem is that they expired six months ago. Now you need to decide whether you’ll use them or not.

You're not alone and many other people often struggle with this same dilemma. So, the question is: Do medications expiration dates matter? Can you still take expired medicines? Are they safe?

Fortunately, we’re here to help, and in this post, we’ll take a look at these questions in more detail.

Do all medications expire?

This question can be interpreted in two ways. This first is to interpret it as asking whether all medications have expiration dates. And here, the answer is that most medications, at least those that are approved for use by bodies like the FDA or Health Canada have expiration dates.

The second way to interpret it is to look at it as asking if medications are still safe to use after they’ve expired. Here, in studies conducted for the US Air Force in the 1980s and the US Military in the 1990s, researchers found that, of the just over 100 drugs surveyed, 90% of them were still good to use as much as 15 years after their expiration dates. 

With that in mind, let’s look at what happens to the medications when they go beyond their expiry dates.

Medicine with manufacturing and expiry date

Do expired medications lose their effectiveness?

To see whether expired medications lose their effectiveness after their expiry dates, we’ll need to look at the study mentioned above in a bit more detail. The main aim of the study was to determine the actual shelf life of stockpiled military medications and to extend them where possible. In doing so, the military could determine whether these medications were still effective for future use, and in the process, save money.

During the study, the FDA tested over 3000 lots of medication including 122 different products. They assessed the drugs in the program based on their:

  • Effectiveness or potency.
  • Water content.
  • Dissolution.
  • Physical appearance.
  • Presence of impurities.

Of the drugs assessed during the study, the FDA extended the expiration dates of 88% of the drugs for an average of 66 months. Of these drugs, about 12% remained stable for at least four years after their initial expiration date. More importantly, 18% of the drugs were terminated because of failures.

expired medicines

Interestingly, during June 2020, the FDA also stated that expiry dates for certain influenza medications like Tamiflu and Relenza could be extended for emergency use in individual states, provided that these drugs were stored under labelled conditions.

What are the risks of taking expired medications?

Considering the results of the study, most drugs will still be effective and safe to use after their expiration dates, right? Well, not exactly. You see, when looking at the results of the study, there are several things you need to consider.

For one, these assessments were conducted in the 1980s and the 1990s. Since then, manufacturers released thousands of new drugs, most of which have not been tested sufficiently or at all. Moreover, only about 100 drugs were tested in these studies and these were mostly drugs used in the military.

More importantly, some drugs did, in fact, fail these tests. For instance, researchers found that drugs like aspirin showed signs of physical decay past their expiration dates while others like Mefloquine, which is used to treat malaria, also performed poorly after their expiration date. More worryingly, though, is a drug like the antibiotic tetracycline which has the potential of becoming toxic after its expiration date.  

risk of taking expired drugs

Based on the results of the study, it's clear that many medications can possibly be safe after their expiry dates. The problem is, however, that it's difficult for you to tell if your specific drug will be. Ultimately, this means you don’t know what will happen to a specific drug after its expiration date and what its effect will be when you use it. 

And this is a vital consideration as, in some cases, using the expired medication can carry some serious risks.

As a best-case scenario, the expired medication might simply not work. However, this can also turn into a bad scenario. For example, let's say you have an illness and you use drugs after their expiry date. This will mean that you’ll get ineffective treatment for your disease which can worsen your outcome and can lead to more severe illness.

Another example would be where you use expired antibiotics. These medications are prone to the risk of bacterial growth and molecular breakdown which reduces their effectiveness. Thus, when you use them, you may fail to treat an infection adequately which could lead to antibiotic resistance or even more serious illness. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, the antibiotic tetracycline might become toxic after its expiration date.

Other medications also pose risks when you use them after their expiration dates. For example, insulin, that's used in the treatment of diabetes, may degrade after its expiration date. Likewise, oral nitroglycerin that you use for the treatment of chest pain, may lose its effectiveness relatively quickly once the medicine is opened.

Ultimately, once meditations’ expiration dates have passed, there are no guarantees for their safety and effectiveness.

What to do with expired medications?

Now considering the above, the question is: What should you do with expired medications? Considering the risks, it's simply not worth using the medication. Simply put, you need to dispose of it.

dispose of the expired medication

To do this, you can make use of take-back programs. With these take-back programs, you can return any unused and expired medications to your local pharmacy. Your pharmacist will then properly dispose of the expired medication. If your local pharmacy doesn’t offer this service, it will likely know of another pharmacy that does. 

In addition, many municipalities and police departments also offer take-back programs for expired medications. These are probably some of the easiest and safest ways to do it.

Importance of storage to maintain medicines’ shelf life

Medicine expiration dates provided by drug manufacturers are based on specific storage conditions which means a specific medicine’s effectiveness might decrease if it’s not stored correctly. As a result, it's crucial to store medicines properly to extend their shelf life and effectiveness up to their expiration dates. 

Here, you should try to not store medicines in your bathroom medicine cabinet. This is simply because the heat and humidity can degrade the drug faster than anticipated and potentially decrease its effectiveness. You also shouldn't store medications in your car, or glove box as excessive heat or cold can degrade your medications quickly.

The ideal way to increase the shelflife of medicine is to store it in dry, cool spaces away from direct light. You should also make sure that the lids of the bottles and containers are always tightly closed and that you keep medications out of reach of children and pets. Moreover, when the medication itself, in its package insert, provides specific storage instructions, you should follow these instructions.

Storage of medicines to maintain their shelf life



Although some meditations might still be safe and effective after their expiry dates, there's a real risk to use them as you won't know how effective and, more importantly, how safe they are. With that in mind, the simplest and safest way to protect yourself and others is to discard any expired medication and not use it.

And if you need to replace expired medication, why not try Mednow. We offer free medication delivery in Ontario, British Columbia, and Nova Scotia. To learn more about medications expiration dates and other valuable resources, visit our blog for more insights like these. 

This article offers general information only and is not intended as medical or other professional advice. A healthcare provider should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the authors as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products, or services is expressly given or implied by Mednow or its affiliates.


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