Tiffany S. Cross, DO
If your prescription medication has expired, don’t use it, toss it — safely. Expired drugs lose their effectiveness, can chemically change and even cause unexpected side effects.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1979 began requiring drug manufacturers to list an expiration date on medications. Those dates reflect the medication’s strength, quality and purity when stored according to directions.
You should never use a medication past its expiration date. But some drugs, like insulin, are particularly important to dispose of after their expiration date to guarantee effectiveness and safety.
Consider two main factors to consider before taking an expired medication:
Effectiveness: Some medications are not as effective after their expiration date. This means that if someone takes the medicine after the expiration date, they won’t be getting the proper medication they need to stabilize their condition. For example, antibiotics used past their expiration date can fail to treat an infection, potentially leading to additional complications as the infection spreads in the body.
Safety: Other expired medications are at risk of bacterial growth. This can cause infection, irritation and other potentially harmful side effects.
An FDA study determined that drugs like liquid antibiotics, aspirin, nitroglycerin and insulin are among the drugs found to have deteriorated past their expiration date. Once a drug has expired, you should dispose of it properly.
Some drugs need to be refrigerated because they’re only effective at a certain temperature. They can break down without the use of a fridge and won’t be as potent. For example, insulin needs to be kept refrigerated.
Other common drugs that need to be stored at a cool temperature, include:
- Eye and ear drops
- Some antibiotics
- Injectibles like insulin
- Some birth control methods like intravaginal rings
- Chemotherapy drugs
- Glucagon, used to manage hypoglycemia
- Some topical medications like creams or gels
If these medications are not stored properly, their chemical properties can break down and be less effective sooner than the expiration date.
How To Dispose of Medications Properly
It’s important to properly dispose of medications because drugs found in the trash can be abused.
Official drug take-back programs (find one near you here) allow you to give expired medications to a clinic, pharmacy or law enforcement facility — usually a police station or fire station.
If a take-back location isn’t available, the FDA has a list on its website of medications that are “flushable” and “nonflushable.”
Nonflushable medications should be sealed whole, not crushed, in a bag filled with cat litter, used coffee grounds or dirt. This contaminates the medication and makes it undesirable or unusable for people who may abuse them.
Flushable medications on the FDA’s flush list include drugs that contain opioids like Demerol, BUTRANS, and morphine. Opioids are highly addictive and can lead to overdose and other dangerous side effects. It’s important to get rid of these drugs right away after use so they don’t reach adults or children.
The FDA also recommends that patients scratch out all personal information on the prescription label of the empty pill bottle or empty medicine packaging before throwing those away.
You may question the disposal of these drugs and their impact on the environment, but the FDA says these medicines present very little risk to the environment.