- Though all medications have an expiration date on their packaging, most stay potent long after that date.
- Tablet medications like ibuprofen remain effective for years after being opened.
- Probiotics and liquid medicines deteriorate faster.
Just like food, medication is required by law to have an expiration date on its packaging. But how long past that date can you keep using your over-the-counter and prescription drugs? And is it safe to take expired medicine?
INSIDER talked to medical experts to find out how long you can keep using some common medications after opening them.
In most cases, the expiration date on medication doesn’t mean what you think it does
The expiration date on the packaging of OTC and prescription drugs doesn’t necessarily reflect when the product expires.
“The vast majority of medications maintain most of their potency years after the posted expiration date. That date is the date after which full potency cannot be guaranteed by the manufacturer,” emergency-medicine specialist Dr. Jack Springer told INSIDER.
“The expiration date doesn’t really indicate a point at which the medication is no longer effective or has become unsafe to use,” Springer said. “Medical authorities state if expired medicine is safe to take, even those that expired years ago.”
There are exceptions; some medications and drug types undergo changes during extended storage that can compromise their safety or effectiveness. Liquid medications and some antibiotics are among these.
Keeping in mind that most OTC medications in tablet or capsule form are safe to use for many years after their expiration date, here are some guidelines on how to manage the drugs in your medicine cabinet.
Use Ibuprofen within 4 to 5 years of opening
Ibuprofen in tablet form, which brands including Advil sell, is at its most potent within four to five years of opening, but it’s safe to consume for many years after.
Dr. Kim Langdon, a clinical adviser at digital-health startup Medzino, told INSIDER that liquid suspensions of ibuprofen are “more susceptible to contamination” and that they should be refrigerated. “The expiration dates are somewhat arbitrary and required by regulations, but the most significant risk is that they lose effectiveness over time rather than a safety issue,” Langdon said.
Store liquid and tablet ibuprofen in a cool, dry space away from sunlight.
Tylenol, or acetaminophen, is best within 4 to 5 years
Just like ibuprofen, acetaminophen should be used within four to five years of opening and liquid forms should be used by the printed expiration date, according to Langdon.
Keep your acetaminophen in a dry area below 77 degrees Fahrenheit and away from sunlight.
Aspirin is most effective within 5 years
Aspirin is also safe and effective for years after the expiration date on the label.
Langdon said the humidity and heat of the bathroom make it a bad place to store medications. Opt for a container in a dark, dry spot, such as a secure closet or cabinet, instead.
Antibiotics should be used immediately as prescribed, but most can last at least a year
Most prescribed antibiotics are suitable for one year.
“Almost all antibiotics are prescribed for a full course, and therefore there should not be any leftovers,” Langdon said. “In the case of daily or chronic use, one year from dispensing is the safe expiration date.”
Liquid antibiotics need to be reconstituted after the expiration date the pharmacist gives, so they should be used immediately.
Use cough syrup by the expiration date on the package
As a liquid medication, cough syrup breaks down more quickly and doesn’t stand up as well as dry medication to long-term storage.
“Store cough syrup in the refrigerator if you want to prolong the effectiveness and taste. The risk of contamination is based on the number of openings and time,” Langdon said.
To keep your cough syrup from being contaminated, never drink directly from the bottle and don’t insert any objects into the bottle unless a physician tells you to.
Nasal sprays contain preservatives that deteriorate
Nasal sprays usually contain preservatives that keep them safe to use. As time passes, the quality of the preservatives can degrade.
“Preservatives are the most likely ingredients to expire in nasal sprays,” Langdon said. “This may increase the risk of contamination.”
Following the instructions on the container is the best way to make sure you’re using safe, effective nasal spray.
Regularly replace eye drops
Any product that comes in contact with the eyes, such as drops or mists, should be replaced as soon as they expire.
“Aerosol products may get contaminated over time,” Langdon said. “Eyes are especially susceptible to bacterial contamination.”
Though it’s safe to keep eye drops that have not expired, you should take special care to keep the packaging clean.
Sleeping pills can lose their potency over time, which can be hazardous
Though nonprescription sleeping pills will remain safe to use for years after opening, they may become less potent. This can make using them more dangerous.
“OTC sleeping pills have a low risk of expiration or causing any problems, except that they may lose potency and trigger multiple doses, some of which may be more potent than others,” Langdon said.
This means that someone taking a less potent, expired sleeping pill may take additional pills to help them fall asleep, inadvertently consuming too large a dose. To be safe, replace sleeping pills soon after they expire.
Allergy medicine in tablet form can be used for over decade after opening
If you have expired antihistamines hanging around in your medicine cabinet, they’re probably still effective.
“Diphenhydramine, a common antihistamine, was studied to last almost 15 years in the tablet form,” Langon said, but added that “liquid OTC antihistamines should be discarded on their expiration date.”
Most drug companies test for effectiveness only for the first two to three years after opening, which is why labels rarely list a later expiration date.
Use Valium within one year
Because diazepam, which is sold under names including Valium, is a prescription drug, there are additional guidelines for its expiration date.
“As a prescription drug, pharmacies limit the use [of Valium] for one year from dispensing,” Langdon said.
As with most medications, store it in a cool, dry place away from direct light.
Because probiotics are alive, it’s best to use them as soon as possible
Because probiotics are alive, they can become far less effective over time or if they’re improperly stored.
“Probiotics are living bacteria and will be subject to inactivity over time. It’s best to them discard based on the manufacturer’s guideline, which is usually one year,” Langdon said.
To keep your probiotics fresh and effective, store them in a cool place away from sunlight. Some probiotics should be kept in the refrigerator.
Adderall should be used within one year of opening
As prescription drugs, Adderall and Mydayis should be used according to your physician’s instructions and consumed within one year.
“One year is the usual expiration date, with less potency being the primary risk after that date,” Langdon said.
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