Drug Expiration Dates - Do They Mean Anything?
With a splitting headache you reach into your medicine cabinet for
some aspirin only to find the stamped expiration date on the bottle
has passed - two years ago. So, do you take it or don't you? If you
decide to take the aspirin will it be a fatal mistake or will you simply
continue to suffer from the headache?
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This is a dilemma many people face in some way or another. A column
published in Pyschopharmacology Today offers some advice.
It turns out that the expiration date on a drug does stand for something,
but probably not what you think it does. Since a law was passed in 1979,
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.
Most of what is known about drug expiration dates comes from a study
conducted by the Food and Drug Administration at the request of the military.
With a large and expensive stockpile of drugs, the military faced tossing
out and replacing its drugs every few years. What they found from the
study is 90% of more than 100 drugs, both prescription and over-the-counter,
were perfectly good to use even 15 years after the expiration date.
So the expiration date doesn't really indicate a point at which the
medication is no longer effective or has become unsafe to use. Medical
authorities state expired drugs are safe to take, even those that expired
years ago. A rare exception to this may be tetracycline, but the report
on this is controversial among researchers. It's true the effectiveness
of a drug may decrease over time, but much of the original potency still
remains even a decade after the expiration date. Excluding nitroglycerin,
insulin, and liquid antibiotics, most medications are as long-lasting
as the ones tested by the military. Placing a medication in a cool place,
such as a refrigerator, will help a drug remain potent for many years.
Is the expiration date a marketing ploy by drug manufacturers, to keep
you restocking your medicine cabinet and their pockets regularly? You
can look at it that way. Or you can also look at it this way: The expiration
dates are very conservative to ensure you get everything you paid for.
And, really, if a drug manufacturer had to do expiration-date testing
for longer periods it would slow their ability to bring you new and improved
The next time you face the drug expiration date dilemma, consider what
you've learned here. If the expiration date passed a few years ago and
it's important that your drug is absolutely 100% effective, you might want
to consider buying a new bottle. And if you have any questions about the
safety or effectiveness of any drug, ask your pharmacist. He or she is
a great resource when it comes to getting more information about your medications.
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November 2003 Update
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