Harvard Women's Health Watch

Can I take an expired medication?

Ask the doctor

Q. I took an ibuprofen for a slight headache last night, and this morning I noticed that the bottle had a 2014 expiration date. Do I need to throw it out and get a fresh bottle?

A. Since 1979, drug manufacturers have been required to stamp an expiration date on their products. This is the date until which the manufacturer can still guarantee the full potency and safety of the drug, and it is fairly arbitrary. It doesn't mean that the drug ceases to be effective on that date.

Most of what is known about drug expiration dates comes from the federal Shelf Life Extension Program (SLEP), which has been testing pharmaceuticals for more than 25 years to estimate when drugs actually will lose their effectiveness. Through SLEP, the FDA has tested scores of drugs approaching their expiration dates. SLEP results published in 2009 indicated that 88% of 122 different drugs stored in unopened, original containers, in a climate-controlled facility, held their potency for an average of more than six-and-a-half years—some for more than 20 years. The one notable exception is the antibiotic tetracycline, which shouldn't be used after its expiration date.

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