According to an advanced practice nurse, the answer really depends.

By Roxanna Coldiron
Raymond Hom

Most of us have several over-the-counter and prescription medicines stored for safe keeping in our bathroom cabinets: prescribed pills from previous injuries and hospital stays, tablets of allergy relief medicine and decongestants, and bottles of aspirin we've brought home after getting an unexpected headache at work. Those medications have expiration dates stamped on them, but how important are they? Is it ever safe to take a pain pill that has an expiration date of a week, a month, or even a year ago?

Pharmaceutical expiration dates are not like the expiration dates you will find on fresh vegetables, meats, or dairy products. Unlike perishable foods, many medications do not spoil or "go bad" in the sense that we usually think of when we talk about expiration dates. When it comes to majority of your medications, the expiration is only the last date that the pharmaceutical company can guarantee its potency. "So, they [meaning drug companies] never really recommend taking medicines after expiration dates," says Kari Sierant, an advanced practice nurse (APN) based in New Jersey. "They want to make sure that you get the full potency and safe medication, and that is why they make expiration dates."

Some medications, like those for cardiac health or diabetes management, have hard expiration dates. Sierant says that medicines like nitroglycerin, insulin, and liquid antibiotics should not be taken after their expiration dates. These medicines require special handling and storage, and they contain ingredients that can spoil. For prescriptions that affect your ability to live, you need to have the right potency and the guarantee of freshness. These, however, are the exceptions. "Some effectiveness can decrease over time, but a lot of studies have shown that the original potency still remains with most common medicines years after the expiration date," Sierant says. "A lot of medicines also show that 70 to 80 percent keep their original potency one to two years after expiration date."

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The Test for Using Expired Medications

For medications that do not need to be refrigerated or that do not need to be at full potency to ensure your life and well-being, you can get away with taking them months (and even years) after their printed expiration dates, Sierant says. So, for example, you can take that expired aspirin for your headache but you should order a new bottle of insulin instead of using one that hit expiration even a day ago.

What Can You Take?

While medical professionals recommend that you only take medications that are unexpired, you can still safely take the following kind of medicines after their expiration date if you don't need them to be at full potency in order to make you feel better: pain relievers such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen in tablet form; antihistamines, allergy, and sinus tablets; and cold medicines like Mucinex, Sudafed, Theraflu, in tablet or powder form.

If the medication comes in a dry form, like tablet or powder, and has been stored in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight, then the medication may still retain its potency and effectiveness years later. In addition to storing medicines properly, you should consider the look and smell of the medicines before taking them. (Aspirin, for one, has chemical ingredients that can go bad after a certain amount of time and can smell like vinegar.) But medications that come in liquid forms or that contain perishable ingredients (like probiotics) or need to be refrigerated should be used within the time frame prescribed by your doctor and by the expiration dates on the bottle. Antibiotics also need to be taken when prescribed. "These are medications that you would never want to worry whether they are effective or not when you need them," Sierant says. "The expiration dates should be heeded for these medicines."

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