Taking out-of-date drugs carries certain risks
Out with the old! Be it the fresh start of a new year or a spring cleaning, consumers are encouraged to take stock of what has surpassed its usefulness. Medicines are no exception.
In 1979, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began requiring an expiration date on prescription and over-the counter medicines. The expiration date is a critical part of deciding if the product is safe to use and will work as intended.
The expiration date can be found printed on the label or stamped onto the bottle or carton, sometimes following “EXP.” It is important to know and stick to the expiration date on your medicine. Using expired medical products is risky and possibly harmful to your health.
Expired medicines can be risky
Expired medical products can be less effective or risky due to a change in chemical composition or a decrease in strength. Certain expired medications are at risk of bacterial growth and sub-potent antibiotics can fail to treat infections, leading to more serious illnesses and antibiotic resistance. Once the expiration date has passed there is no guarantee that the medicine will be safe and effective. If your medicine has expired, do not use it.
According to the DEA many people don’t know how to properly clean out their medicine cabinets. Failing to safely dispose of old medications, especially opioids, all too often leads to dangerous drugs ending up in the wrong hands. The CDC reports that 50,000 young children end up in emergency rooms each year because they got into medicines while an adult wasn’t looking.
Finally, expired medicines are also not just a risk to the person they were prescribed for and can injure children and pets if taken by mistake. For all these reasons, proper disposal of unneeded medicines is essential.
What to do with expired meds
First, read the medicine’s label and follow any specific disposal instructions that may be included. A drug take-back program, if available, is the preferred way to dispose of expired, unwanted, or unused medicine. For example, the National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, coordinated by the DEA, addresses a vital public safety and public health issue by focusing attention on this important issue and reminding everyone to get rid of unneeded and outdated medicines. Through this important program many tons of unneeded and out-date drugs have been removed for proper disposal.
When drug take-back programs aren’t available, federal guidelines recommend throwing the medicines away in the household trash after mixing them with a substance like dirt or kitty litter and then sealing the mixture in a container (see graphic at right). However, certain medicines are specifically recommended for flushing down a toilet or sink because they could be especially harmful, even fatal, to a child, pet, or anyone else if taken accidentally. For a list of medicines recommended for disposal by flushing, as well as other information on proper disposal, please see the Disposal of Unused Medicines page.
A place for everything
Proper storage is one way to help make sure your medicines will remain safe and effective up to their expiration date. Be sure to read the label to see if there are specific storage instructions for your medicine. Certain medicines need to be stored in the refrigerator and others cannot be exposed to high temperatures. Improper storage – such as a damp bathroom cabinet – can contribute to decreased effectiveness in medicines that have not reached their posted expiration date. For most medicines, to help ensure the proper shelf life of your medicine, it is better to store medicine in a cool, dry place such as a dresser drawer, storage box, closet shelf, or kitchen cabinet.
When storing medicine in a kitchen cabinet make sure that it is away from hot appliances and the sink due to changing temperatures and humidity, which can affect the medicine. When storing medicine in a high traffic area, like a kitchen, care should be taken to prevent access by children at risk of accidental poisoning or others who may be tempted to take for abuse/misuse.
Remember to store medicines properly and don’t use expired medicines -- it’s not worth the risk!