Asked by Nancy, Edmonton, Canada
Is it dangerous to use medicine after the expiration date? Is it simply ineffective only and does not cause harm? Should expiration dates be observed accurately?
Living Well Expert
Dr. Jennifer Shu
Children's Medical Group
First, I'd like to commend you for checking the medication label for an expiration date -- after all, the dates are put there for a reason. Typically the label advises you not to use a medicine after a certain date, which is either set by the drug manufacturer or is one year from the time you get the medicine from the pharmacy -- whichever comes first. This is sometimes called the "beyond-use date." The U.S. Food and Drug Administration sets standards regarding the potency of drugs; expiration dates are used to let consumers know that when stored properly, the medication will remain effective until that date. Pharmacists may use an earlier date for certain drugs (such as liquids) or when pills have been transferred from one container to another before being dispensed to the patient. Although using expired medicine is often not harmful, some drugs can become toxic after a while so it's safest to err on the side of caution and not use them.
Once you realize that a medicine is past its beyond-use date, it's also important to dispose of it properly. First check with your pharmacy or local hazardous waste department to see whether they have a medicine take-back or disposal program. Do not flush medicine down the toilet unless the label specifically states to do so; putting chemicals into the water supply can be dangerous to fish, wildlife and even humans. If you need to throw away the medicine yourself, take it out of the original container and mix it into a bag or jar of coffee grounds, kitty litter or dirt before putting it all in the trash. Remove and destroy the label from the original container before throwing that away as well.
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