Guide to Expired Medications

Some drugs and medications should never be used past their expiration dates

With the New Year underway, many people are taking a moment out of 2016 to do a little New Year’s cleaning. With that in mind, we at SelectCare Home Care Services of NY wanted to provide some advice about expired medication, in case you get the cleaning bug while looking at your medicine cabinet.

Guide to Expired Medications

What is a “use by” date on the prescription bottle?

If you take a look at the prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications in your home, you will notice that they are all labelled with an expiration or “use by” date.

An expiration date is typically set for 2 to 5 years after a container of medication was produced and is placed on the container your pharmacist originally received the medication inside. Meanwhile a “use by” date is normally set to a year after the medication was prescribed to a patient.

An expiration date is mandated by the FDA as a safety precaution – most medications become weaker over time, and the expiration date indicates the window of time when a medication will maintain a least 90 percent of its potency. The “use by” date, provides a similar guideline, but assumes the medication will lose its potency faster, since it is not being stored by a medical professional.

How should I store my medication?

Although most of us have a medicine cabinet in our bathrooms, it’s actually not an ideal place to store medication.  Medication is best stored in a cool, dry place with little exposure to light – an environment you probably can’t maintain in your bathroom if you are taking steamy showers.

Additionally, it might be convenient to keep your medication in a car glove box or your kitchen cupboards, however these locations can also get very warm and lower the shelf life of your medicine.

For best results, it might be best to keep your medications in a dresser drawer or pantry.  Just be certain you remember where you put them! Out of sight can also mean out of mind.

Should I take medications that are past their “use by” or expiration date?

This is a question best answered by the old adage “better safe than sorry.”

Although you will likely get some results from taking expired OTC medications, like ibuprofen for a headache or common cold medicines, it’s impossible to guess just how potent these medicines will be once they are expired.  Trying to make up for a lack of potency by taking more than one dose is not recommended by healthcare professionals for this reason.

Additionally, there are some drugs and medications that should never be used past their expiration dates. Below are some types of medication that should never be used past their “use by” date:

Anticonvulsants – narrow therapeutic index*

Dilantin, Phenobarbital – loses potency very quickly

Warfarin – narrow therapeutic index*

Procan SR – sustained release procainamide

Theophylline – loses potency very quickly

Digoxin – narrow therapeutic index*

Thyroid preparations


Oral contraceptives

Epinephrine – loses potency very quickly

Insulin – loses potency very quickly

Eye drops – eyes are particularly sensitive to any bacteria that might grow in a solution once a preservative degrades

Liquid medications – loses potency very quickly

Inhalers – loses potency very quickly

*  Narrow therapeutic index means that the medication is dependent on a very specifically-sized dose in order to work properly. Since expired drugs have unpredictable potency and the conditions in your body might have changed since the drug was prescribed, you could experience serious side effects from taking these types of medication.

How often should I check my medication?

In this case, more is always better than less.  Some experts recommend checking your medications every six months, the same way you would check the batteries in your smoke detectors.  Just think of this as one extra step in your twice-annual home safety check.

What should I do with expired medication?

Once you have found expired medication, you need to decide how to remove them from your home safely.  Keep in mind that the majority of prescription drug abuse occurs when someone other than the patient gains access to this medication.

It might seem like an easy solution, but you should not dump expired medication in the toilet or down a sink drain, since doing so could potentially contaminate your local water supply.

Instead, try contacting your doctor’s office, pharmacy or local senior center to learn about drug “buy back” programs, which are oftentimes organized by local hospitals or law enforcement agencies.  These groups will ensure your drugs do not fall into the wrong hands.

If there are no such programs in your area, there are some simple steps you can take to safely destroy expired medication:

1 – Crush the medication (if in pill or tablet form).

2 – Pour the medication into another substance that will make it impossible to recover the medication, like a small bottle of bleach, cat litter, old coffee grounds or sand.

3 – Take the medication mixture and throw it out with the rest of your garbage.

What am I even throwing out?

It’s not at all uncommon for people to forget exactly what they have been prescribed, especially if the prescription was filled several months ago or is part of a larger schedule of medications.  You should never consider taking medication you cannot identify.

However, if you are unsure what medication you have in your shelf, there are numerous online pill identifier programs that can help you and your health care team identify the contents of your medicine cabinet.

We hope that you found this advice helpful. SelectCare’s staff of home health care experts understands the importance of safely handling medication and is always available to answer questions about your medication and safety.  To learn more about how we can help you or a loved one remain safe and independent at home, call us today.