Home > Blog > Expired Meds: Unsafe Or Arbitrary?

In the 1970s, the Food and Drug Administration began requiring that all prescription and over-the-counter medications carry an expiration date.  But with the cost of drugs so high, and drug shortages so commonplace, are there real reasons to be disposing of expired drugs?  There is no good reason to think that we might be throwing away perfectly good medicines.

A new study revealed that eight common drugs between 28 and 40 years old were just as safe and effective now as when they were manufactured.  In most, there was at least 90% of the active ingredient still present in the drug, which the FDA deems an acceptable amount of variation.

There were of course drugs that did not meet the acceptable level of variation, but they were in the minority.  When the age of the drugs in the study is considered, it seems arbitrary that most drugs manufactured today expire in one to five years.

This new study is not the only one done; in fact, the FDA itself conducted a study and found that 90% of over 100 expired drugs were perfectly safe for use even 15 years after expiration.

What these expiration dates boil down to is that the drug companies are willing to guarantee that the drugs will be effective at the stated potency for this length of time.  They do not speak to a drug’s actual shelf life.

How does this affect you?  With drug prices as high as they are, following these arbitrary expiration dates means that both pharmacies and individuals are disposing of perfectly good medications, leading to more waste in an already strapped health care system.

Even more worrisome is that these expiration dates may contribute to growing drug shortages of critical medications.  For more on drug shortages, click here.  The FDA itself has addressed this problem in certain situations, for example by extending the expiration date of some anti-venom medications that are in short supply.

How can you extend the life of your medications?  Keep them in a controlled environment, away from sunlight and humidity.  Storing them in the refrigerator will extend their lives as well.  You can also consult your pharmacist for her opinion.

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