Medical regulatory authorities across the world require pharmaceutical companies to provide an expiration date for all prescription and over-the-counter drugs. But, can pills and other medications go bad? Well, the expiration date on a drug does stand for something, but probably not what you think it does.
The date stamped is the result of numerous tests conducted before drugs even hit the market: Researchers store drugs under recommended conditions (room temperature or refrigerated) and test them over time to see if the chemical compounds break down and if they remain potent. But companies don’t keep studying the drug forever, so if the medications still work until the end of the trial period – that’s good enough for them. This testing period usually lasts between 6 months and 2 years. So, basically, the resulting expiration date simply shows the last point where the company has data.
Beyond the date of expiration, the company cannot guarantee that the drug will work, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the medication is no longer effective or has become unsafe to use. Some research papers have shown that most pills will work even years after their expiration dates. One study found that 90% of more than 100 drugs, both prescription and over-the-counter, were perfectly good to use even 15 years after the expiration date.
However, doctors and authorities still recommend that the best practice for your own good is to throw away all medication after the date stamped on the package. Because of that, piles of expired drugs, worth thousands and maybe even millions of dollars are thrown away each year. Some people and analysts even wonder if expiration dates are a marketing ploy by drug manufacturers, to keep you restocking your medicine cabinet and their pockets regularly. Who knows? Are you prepared to take the risk?
If you consider taking an expired drug, experts advise against taking one for a life-threatening problem. “For some drugs, the only risk would be well, maybe it won’t work as well. If you have a headache, maybe that’s not a big deal. But if it’s for an emergency problem, there’s a risk when a drug doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to,” says Gina Bellottie, a professor of pharmacology at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Further, she says, old medications, especially if they’re open, and especially if they’re liquid, could also become contaminated after a long period of time.