Prescription and over-the-counter medicines are marked with an expiry date – usually shown as EXP, followed by a month and year. It can be on the side of the packet, punctured onto the foil or on the container.
Most of us have come across medicines in the bathroom cabinet that have expired, but there’s some degree of confusion over whether these medicines are still safe to take. The answer isn’t that simple, and it will depend on a number of factors.
Medicines were first marked with expiry dates in 1979, following a law that stated that drug manufacturers had to declare the date at which a drug was no longer deemed safe to use, or at which its full potency could not be guaranteed.
On behalf of the military, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) researched expiry dates on many drugs, and its results were compelling. It discovered that 90% of over 100 drugs tested were still safe and effective to use up to 15 years after an expiry date. This suggests that the expiry date isn’t a fool proof indicator of when medicines are no longer safe for use. Indeed, some medical experts claim that the expiry date is only a guideline, and some medicines are still effective long after the expiry date has lapsed. Some people even suggest that the expiry date may simply be a marketing tactic to make consumers stock up on newer medications.
However, before you go reaching for old medicines that have been gathering dust at the back of a cupboard, these research findings don’t necessarily give the green light to go ahead and take out-of-date medicines. Certainly, some medicines such as those containing nitroglycerin, tetracycline or insulin, and liquid antibiotics – should only be taken within the designated timeframe.
In reality, drug manufacturers haven’t got the resources to research optimum expiry dates and the effects of going beyond the dates given aren’t clearly documented. Equally, by putting extended expiry dates on medicines, it would mean improved formulations would take longer to reach the market.
There’s a chance that a medicine’s potency may be the same months or years after its expiry date, but if you’re relying on a medicine to control an illness, speak to your GP or pharmacist for advice. Expired medicines may not work as well, they may be at risk of bacterial growth or a change in chemical composition could make them unsafe to use.
The strength of medicines is also affected by the way they’re stored. Medicines that are stored in a cool environment, such as a refrigerator, are more likely to retain their potency compared with those that are stored in a warm, humid cupboard. So, even if a medicine hasn’t expired, if it isn’t stored correctly, this may hinder its effectiveness.
Drug manufacturers must also ensure their products are stored correctly in pharmaceutical cold stores, so that medicines remain at optimum conditions during every point of the production, storage and shipping process. For highly effective pharmaceutical cold store design and construction services, 1COLD offers a wide range of dependable solutions.