It’s likely the actual shelf life of your medications is much longer than the date printed on the box. Medications required “as needed” often sit in the bottle for a long time — patients wonder when they should be discarded but really don’t want to pay for another expensive prescription. Heidi Mitchell of the Wall Street Journal describes this problem in her story 8/25/14 “Are Expired Medications OK to Take?”
The military has the shelf-life problem on a large scale — numerous doses of medications are stockpiled in case of an emergency. Fortunately, in 2006 the military commissioned the FDA to study the problem — just as we all suspected, most medications last much longer than the expiration date — on average 5.5 years longer.
Medications fail the shelf-life tests if there is a significant loss of potency, leakage, crumbling of pills, loss of pressure within an inhaler, mold growth or bacterial contamination. The latter two problems are mostly with liquid medications and are manifest by a cloudy or discolored appearance.
Although most medications last much longer than expected there are some cautionary notes: Don’t keep medications for emergency life-saving situations beyond the expiration date. This would include insulin, nitroglycerin and injectable epinephrine. Also, medications requiring refrigeration should not be kept beyond the expiration date. Many medications exposed to high temperatures (such as in an automobile glove compartment for several summer days) may deteriorate rapidly and are probably best discarded.
All medications, stockpiled or not, need to be kept out of the reach of children.
Medications don’t become poisonous with storage but they can become less potent. A pain pill that is 10% less potent is actually not much of a problem — most people can’t notice a 10% change.
So, if the military stockpiles medications 5 1/2 years beyond the expiration date so can you — save some money!