The Full Story
Should you take expired medicines? The short answer is "no". Old medicines may not work as well as they should.
The law requires expiration dates on drugs. Drug makers select a date that they know will be safe. Many drugs are probably effective after that date, but are not tested to be sure.
Drugs kept for a long time may deteriorate if they are not stored properly. This is especially important for drugs like heart medicines, insulin, and antibiotics. Insulin needs to be refrigerated. Most other medicines should be stored at room temperature. Warm, humid places like bathrooms and kitchens usually are not ideal.
Don't take expired medicines. Throw them away. Mix them with garbage in a sealed container. Then, throw them in the trash. A few drugs, such as powerful narcotics, are so dangerous they should be flushed, instead. Guidelines are available on the Food & Drug Administration website.
Some pharmacies take old medicines back. Ask your pharmacist. One website to check is www.disposemymeds.org. Also, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration sponsors community medicine take-back events.
If you think someone has taken an old medicine, the wrong medicine, or too much medicine, use the webPOISONCONTROL® online tool for guidance or call Poison Control right away at 1-800-222-1222.
- Old medicines may not work as well as they should.
- Drugs kept for a long time may deteriorate.
- Don't take expired medicines. Instead, throw them away according to FDA guidelines.
Shannon Lee, RPh, BSPharm
Certified Specialist in Poison Information
Rose Ann Gould Soloway, RN, BSN, MSEd, DABAT emerita
- Check the expiration date on all medicines, prescription and over-the-counter.
- Safely discard expired drugs.
This Really Happened
Case 1: A 41-year-old woman had a toothache. Over two days, she took some old tetracycline that she had at home. For three days, she had vomiting and significant weakness; she was admitted to the hospital. She was found to have Fanconi syndrome, a kidney disease, and lactic acidosis (abnormal blood chemistry). She improved slowly, but required three weeks in the hospital. She was her usual self after four months. The cause was the tetracycline, which was outdated and degraded.
Reference: Montoliu J, Carrrera M, Darnell A, Revert L. Lactic acidosis and Fancon's syndrome due to degraded tetracycline. British Medical Journal. 1981;283:1576-1577
Case 2: A 16-year-old boy took 2 Zicam® Cold Remedy Rapid Melts (a homeopathic product containing 2 forms of zinc) during the day. That evening he realized that the product had an expiration date of 8 months prior. He called Poison Control feeling very anxious and complaining of pain under his ribs. Poison Control reassured him that the pain was not related to the medicine and that he would not be harmed.
Case 3: A 9-month-old girl had a fever. Her mom gave her 2 doses of Children's Tylenol® Ages 2-11 during the night. At 3:00 AM, her mom realized that the medicine had an expiration date of about one year before and called Poison Control. Poison Control reassured her that the baby would not be harmed and advised her just to replace the medicine as soon as she could. During a follow-up call from Poison Control to the child's mom later that day, she reported that the baby hadn't had any ill effects from the medicine.