According to a new study, prescription drugs can actually remain sufficiently potent well past their expiration date, as long as it’s unopened. (It’s important to remember that drugs need to be stored properly, as humidity, temperature and exposure to light can affect the drug’s shelf life.)
Prescription Drugs Still Viable Up to 40 Years Past Their Expiration Date, Study Finds
The researchers analyzed eight prescription drugs that expired between 28 and 40 years ago, and found that most were just as potent as when they were made.
The drugs included 14 active ingredients, including aspirin, codeine and hydrocodone, and in 86 percent of the cases, there was still at least 90 percent of the active ingredient left in the drug, which is within the limits allowed by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Any given batch of a drug may contain anywhere between 90-110 percent of the amount of the active ingredient stated on the label.
As reported by CNN Health:2
“It’s impossible to say from the study results alone whether the eight drugs would be effective if used today, but ‘there’s no reason to think that they’re not,’ says Lee Cantrell, the lead author of the study… Two of the tested ingredients, aspirin and amphetamine, consistently fell below the 90 percent threshold, as did one sample of the painkiller phenacetin…
‘All [the expiration date] means from the manufacturers’ standpoint is that they’re willing to guarantee the potency and efficacy for the drug for that long,’ he says. ‘It has nothing to do with the actual shelf life.’
The fact that expiration dates appear to be somewhat arbitrary may mean that consumers and pharmacies alike are throwing away perfectly good medicine. And this has important implications for drug shortages and especially health care costs, the researchers say.
‘We’re spending billions and billions on medications and medication turnover,’ Cantrell says. ‘If a drug has expired, you’ve got to throw it away, it goes into a landfill, and you have to get a new prescription. This could potentially have a significant impact on cost.’
Although consistently taking depleted prescription drugs could certainly cause complications, expired drugs are generally safe. In the medical literature there is only one example of an expired drug that became toxic, and that was an isolated incident, says Cantrell, the director of the San Diego division of the California Poison Control System.”
This supports previous findings by the US military, which found that 90 percent of the drugs tested were potent far past their original expiration date, at least one drug was still good after 15 years. There are exceptions of course.
Nitroglycerin, insulin and liquid antibiotics are three drugs that do NOT tend to keep well past their expiration date.
According to a report by The Wall Street Journal from 2000:
“…Francis Flaherty says he has concluded that expiration dates put on by manufacturers typically have no bearing on whether a drug is usable for longer. Mr. Flaherty notes that a drug maker is required to prove only that a drug is still good on whatever expiration date the company chooses to set. The expiration date doesn’t mean, or even suggest, that the drug will stop being effective after that, nor that it will become harmful.
‘Manufacturers put expiration dates on for marketing, rather than scientific, reasons,’ says Mr. Flaherty, a pharmacist at the FDA until his retirement last year. ‘It’s not profitable for them to have products on a shelf for 10 years. They want turnover.'”
Cantrell again suggests expiration dating of drugs might need to be reevaluated, and it sounds like a good idea to me. The pharmaceutical industry can easily bilk extra money out of the medical system by stating a drug will expire after one year, when in fact it can safely last several years – perhaps several decades! Overall, it’s a massive waste of money, but what’s worse, unnecessary medication turnover also contributes to water contamination, which is becoming an increasingly troublesome concern.