What You Need to Know About Prescription Expiration Dates

Understanding the Importance of Medication Expiration Dates

Most of us know from first-hand experience the price paid for ignoring warnings about expired medications. While some medications will not work as well after expiring, others can be simply too dangerous to take.

Medical authorities and drug makers state that it is a recommended practice to avoid taking any prescriptions or over-the-counter (OTC) medications after their printed expiration date and always consult with your healthcare provider before taking expired medicines.

What are Expiration Dates, and Do They Mean Anything?

The expiration date on medicines does stand for something, but maybe not what you think it does. Since a law was passed in 1979 regulating the expiration dates on medicines, drug manufacturers are required to stamp an expiration date on their products. This is the date at which the manufacturer can still guarantee the full potency and safety of the drug.

Even though some medications may be effective beyond their expiration dates, there is this dilemma many people face in some way or another.  Studies also conclude that the true shelf life of a medication varies by the:

  • Medication itself
  • Batch of the medication
  • Storage conditions, including heat, humidity, and length of time the container has been open.

Be that as it may, the FDA clearly states that consumers should not use expired medications due to greater risks factors. Dr. Richard Altschuler, in an article quoted by Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide, provides an excellent bit of advice: “Wisdom dictates that if your life does depend on an expired drug, and you must have 100 percent or so of its original strength, you should probably toss it and get a refill, in accordance with the cliché, ‘better safe than sorry.’ If your life does not depend on an expired drug, such as that for headaches, hay fever, or menstrual cramps, take it and see what happens.”

Context is critical when discussing prescriptions and when they are considered “expired.” Generally, when prescribed medication by a healthcare provider, it takes approximately one year to fill the prescription before it expires. On the contrary, prescriptions for controlled substance may not be valid after  6 months or less, depending on state laws and legislature.

How Do We Know When Prescriptions Expire?

For prescriptions and health products that have expired, the pharmacy will request a new prescription order from the healthcare provider for a refill of the medication often from the provider on the patient’s behalf.

In an article written by Dr. Austin Ulrich, a board-certified ambulatory care clinical pharmacist, he explains that “prescription expiration dates are based on state and federal laws and are different from manufacturer expiration dates, which reflect how long a medication is guaranteed to be safe and effective. “Sometimes, the medication inside your prescription vial may still be good after the prescription is no longer valid to refill. Ask your pharmacist where on your prescription label the manufacturer expiration date is, so you can be sure it is safe to keep taking it, he adds

Most of what is known about drug expiration dates comes from a study conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Some medications, especially those taken to treat critical health issues, should always be taken before the manufacturer’s expiration date because they can break down quickly after expiring.

Don’t Chance it!

So, the expiration date does not really indicate a point at which the medication is no longer effective or has become unsafe to use, however, there are some medications known to be less stable over time, and these medications should not be taken beyond the expiration date. These medications include:

  • Insulin
  • Nitroglycerin
  • Liquid antibiotics
  • tetracycline antibiotics,
  • chemotherapy agents,
  • antiviral drugs,
  • Epi-pens
  • Supplements
  • Eye Drops

There are no studies that show using these medications after their expiration date causes serious harm except that the risk is related to how effective the medication

In addition, let your doctor know when a refill is needed for a medication used to manage a health condition, since relying on expired, less effective medication to treat a serious health issue could lead to dangerous and even life-threatening complications.

How to store medicines to maintain their shelf life?

According to medical authorities and health experts, proper storage of medications will most likely help to extend their potency. To help your medications last as long as possible, Alex Luli, PharmD, pharmacist and health sciences assistant clinical professor at Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at UC San Diego, recommends storing them in a cool, dry, dark place.

“Heat, light and moisture can all degrade medications,” he said. “So, the most common places people store their medications — the bathroom and the kitchen — aren’t ideal due to humidity and heat exposure. A hall closet would be the best, as long as the medications are out of reach of kids and pets, of course.”

Similarly, medications should not be left in a hot car or glovebox, or in freezing weather. Most oral, solid medications remain most stable in dry, cool spaces away from light. You are advised to keep the prescription bottle caps tightly closed and always out of reach of children and pets.

Look at your package insert for proper storage instructions or ask your pharmacist. Be careful to follow any instructions for refrigeration or freezing.

What should you do with expired medicine?

If you have unused or expired prescription medication at your disposal that needs to be discarded, think twice before flushing those old painkillers or birth control pills down the drain. While this may seem like a safe option, it could directly impact wildlife. “Disposing of pharmaceuticals down a drain or toilet can result in the drugs seeping into groundwater, negatively impacting fish and animal populations in aquatic ecosystems,” says Tim Carroll, spokesperson for the Environmental Protection Agency.

How to Dispose of Expired Medications

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), if there are no specific instructions on the prescription drug labeling label about how to safely dispose of it and a drug take-back program is not available in your community, you can throw them away in your household trash. To dispose of medications in the trash, the FDA recommends following a couple of important steps. First, mix the medicine, after removing from its container, with an undesirable substance like kitty litter, dirt, or used coffee grounds, sealing the mixture in a bag to ensure the medicine does not leak or break out of a garbage bag, and throwing the sealed bag in the trash. Do not crush tablets or open capsules before mixing them with the dirt, kitty litter, or other substance.

If you don’t want to dump the expired medicine in your own trash, you can utilize a take back program. According to the FDA, disposing of your medications at a drug take-back location is the safest way to get rid of old medications.

Dropping excess medication off at a DEA–authorized “Drug Take Back” collector site locations are designed to securely round up unused or expired medicine and safely dispose of them. And collection sites can vary depending on where you live, so do your research. Authorized places can include retail stores, hospitals, pharmacies, or law enforcement facilities like police departments and fire departments. These can also offer on-site medicine drop-off boxes, mail back programs, or in-home disposal methods that can help you dispose of your own unused or expired medications. To find one, visit dea.gov or ask your pharmacist. There is usually no charge to do this, just remove any private information before bringing them in.

Nationwide commitment to Americans’ safety and health

The DEA also sponsors National Drug Take-Back Days, where extra drop-off locations are available twice a year to dispose of unwanted medications. These take-back days typically happen at the end of April and October. You can search for a year-round medication disposal location near you on the DEA website. This event’s goal is to provide “a safe, convenient, and responsible means of disposing of prescription drugs, while also educating the general public about the potential for abuse of medications.” The 20th event took place in April 2021 and included 5,060 total collection sites and 839,543 pounds (420 tons) of unused and expired medications collected that day. To participate in these events, visit dea.gov for more information.  

Bottom Line

It is always best practice to avoid using expired medications. It is best to be safe than sorry.

If a medication is essential for a chronic and potentially life-threatening disease, for example, a heart condition, cancer treatment, seizure, or life-threatening allergy, get a new prescription before it expires and keep up with refills as needed. If you take an expired medication and you notice the drug has little or no effect, the medication should be replaced immediately.

Remember to always speak with your healthcare provider about any medication use. Storing medications as recommended on the label and disposing of expired items properly are essential for ensuring medication safety in your home.

This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. ifocurs is not offering advice, recommending, or endorsing any specific prescription drug, pharmacy, or other information on the site. ifocurs provides no warranty for any information. Please seek medical advice before starting, changing, or terminating any medical treatment.



Solari is an author and a content writer for ifocurs, the most-advanced digital media platform for the most diverse, most online, and most socially engaged audience in modern times. When she is not working, she enjoys travel adventures, photography, and reading literary masterpieces. She is an influencer marketing consultant; a keynote speaker, mom, and writer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Related Posts

Sign up for our Newsletter

Stay connected with ifocurs