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Style Magazine

When Good Pills Go Bad

May 02, 2013 02:37AM ● By Style

How many expired prescription drugs are lurking in your medicine cabinet?

Maybe you have a few pills from your last root canal, extra blood pressure pills from a previous prescription, or leftover cough syrup from last year’s cold. If the label says the meds have expired, is it OK to use them now or down the road? The experts say “no.”


Like food and other perishable items, prescription and over-the-counter medications have a limited shelf life. “Once past the expiration date, both safety and potency of medications may be affected,” says Shalini Lynch, PharmD, health sciences associate clinical professor at UCSF School of Pharmacy, noting medications lose potency when not stored at the correct temperatures, humidity and light conditions.


Taking expired medication may seem harmless but think again. “Expired drugs may not provide adequate efficacy and therapeutic response as intended and may lead to harmful results,” explains Dr. Don K. Tran, PharmD, an inpatient pharmacist at Sutter Roseville Medical Center. Dr. Tran gives this example: A type 2 diabetic, taking insulin to control high blood sugar passed out after using a new vial of insulin. The patient’s doctor thought she was taking non-expired insulin and recommended an increased dose of insulin. The problem? The patient didn’t tell her doctor she’d been using her vial of insulin for over 30 days, whereby the insulin “was likely less potent,” Dr. Tran says.


Whether or not medications are expired, it’s not safe to share them. “A family member or friend may have medication allergies that you are not aware of, the dose could be incorrect for them, or the product could pose danger for a medical condition that you aren’t aware of,” Lynch says. Other risks of expired medications include effects such as diarrhea and stomach irritation.

Expired antibiotics are another risk. “The expired antibiotic is unlikely to have the potency required to kill the infection and can result in a more drug-resistant super bug that very few or perhaps no antibiotic can get rid of like some strains of MRSA,” Dr. Tran says.



If you have expired medication, you need to get rid of it safely.

You can dispose of unwanted meds at the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) annual “National Prescription Drug Take Back Day,” which is scheduled for April 27 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Last year, the DEA collected 244 tons of unwanted prescriptions nationwide.

You can also check with your doctors’ offices and pharmacies to see if they offer disposal of expired prescriptions.

If you’re disposing of medicine at home, avoid flushing it down the toilet.

The FDA recommends throwing medicine in the trash (unless it’s against local laws). They also suggest mixing pills and tablets with “an unpalatable substance such as kitty litter or used coffee grounds.” Fold medicine patches in half, making sure the sticky sides are touching before throwing them out.

Protect your privacy by removing the label or blackening out personal information on the label.