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Elizabeth Cohen: When in doubt, throw them out

CNN's Elizabeth Cohen
CNN's Elizabeth Cohen

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(CNN) -- Some people ignore expiration dates on medicines and continue to take them, others promptly throw them out. A recent study looked at the quality of drugs after they had passed their expiration dates to see who really is right.

CNN medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen explains the results with anchor Soledad O'Brien and gives advice about what to do before opening that old bottle of medicine.

COHEN: I'm sure you've had the experience where you go to the medicine cabinet and you think, "Gosh, it expired three months ago. What should I do?"

Well, most medicines in the United States have a one to three-year expiration date. And so some people wondered: How realistic are those dates? And, in fact, there was a study that was done by the military.

The military was sitting on this huge stockpile of drugs that had expired, and they thought, "Gee, should we throw these away or shouldn't we?" There were 312 different kinds of drugs, and what the study found is that some of them were good for as long as nine years past their expiration date.

And this has prompted the American Medical Association to ask the pharmaceutical industry to study expiration dates and drug stability.

O'BRIEN: Can storing the medicines a certain way damage the life expectancy for the drug? And if so, how should you be storing them to make sure that they last as long as they possibly can?

COHEN: Yes, absolutely. There are best ways to store medications. And in fact the drug industry says, Yes, in the military they lasted beyond the expiration date. But in the military, they store them under optimum conditions.

Optimum condition means: Do not store them in your bathroom, which is, of course, where many of us have our medicines. The bathroom is very warm when you're taking a shower and then gets cold. Those fluctuations aren't good; that humidity is not good. So that is a bad idea. Also, the refrigerator is a bad idea unless it's specified that you should put it the fridge for the same reason. It could be very humid in the refrigerator. So you want to choose a cool, dry place.

O'BRIEN: Interesting. All right, Elizabeth. How should you get rid of the drugs that have expired or that you're no longer taking? Is it OK to just throw them in the garbage or if they're liquid throw them down the sink? Or is there a specific way you should get rid of them?

COHEN: Well, the way you get rid of them isn't as important as just actually getting rid of them. If you have children in the house, you want to make sure you just don't put the pills in the wastebasket where they can find them.

But the bottom line is that if they've expired you do need to get rid of them. There's a good chance that they're still OK or maybe they're just a little bit less potent but would still be safe, but some drugs actually can be toxic if they're left around too long.

And the bottom line is you can't test drugs the way the military does. You just don't know. So the bottom line, you've got to throw them out.

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