You should never take a medication that has passed its expiration date, right? After all, it’s probably completely ineffective. And it might even be toxic.
Well, I have some news for you. Expiration dates mean little to nothing. And here’s how we know:
Some folks at the US Department of Defense noticed that they had large and expensive stockpiles of drugs that were past their expiration date. So they commissioned the FDA to test these expired drugs to see if they were still usable.
Now if you’re a regular reader, you know that I often disagree with the FDA. But in this particular instance, the FDA did a great job.
They looked at over 100 common prescription and over-the-counter drugs. And what they found was astonishing: 90% of the drugs tested were still good 15 years after their expiration date! And some of them were still good 25 years after expiration!
At this point, you may be wondering why there’s such a big gap between expiration dates and drug effectiveness.
One reason is that there are no rules about how long manufacturers have to test drugs for effectiveness. If they want to test for only 6 months, they can do that. If they want to test longer, they can do that, too. It’s entirely up to them.
And here’s the rub: It’s not in the drug companies’ interest to have longer expiration periods.
Francis Flaherty was the director of the FDA drug-testing program for years. He told The Wall Street Journal that “manufacturers put expiration dates on for marketing, rather than scientific, reasons. It’s not profitable for them to have products on a shelf for 10 years. They want turnover.”
Unfortunately, hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies still go by the expiration dates set by the drug companies. That means you and I are expected to replace medications when the drug companies want us to, even if they’re still perfectly good.
Joel Davis is a former FDA expiration-date compliance chief. He also spoke to The Wall Street Journal, and told them “most drugs degrade very slowly.” And he went on to say, “in all likelihood, you can take a product you have at home and keep it for many years, especially if it’s in the refrigerator.”
So what should you do?
Well first of all, you should be aware of some important exceptions. Nitroglycerin, insulin, and liquid antibiotics are very sensitive to decay. So if you use these medications, you need to make sure they’re up to date.
Second, if you have medications you use for life-threatening conditions, I recommend that you keep those up to date, too.
For everything else, you can use unopened medications for at least two years past their expiration date.