Let's use milk as an example. When you get past the expiration date, there's a good chance you're going to encounter smelly, sour, spoiled milk. The farther you get past the date, the worse it gets. No one likes to waste food, but if you are forced to throw out milk that has gone beyond expiration and has spoiled, so be it. The question about expiration dates becomes more complex when we consider products, such as medication, which have therapeutic value related to their potency.
That's not to mention the expense involved. Too often, arthritis patients change medications in an effort to better control their symptoms or disease progression. Later, they may end up going back on the drug they had set aside. If the drug sat for an extended period of time, it may have expired. I dare say, what's more painful that tossing out expensive drugs?
What Does the Expiration Date on Medication Mean?
In 1979, a law was passed in the United States that required drug manufacturers to stamp an expiration date on the medications they produced. The date represents the point to which the drug manufacturer can guarantee full potency and safety of the drug. But does "can guarantee full potency and safety" imply that if you take the drug beyond that point it is no good or, perhaps more importantly, unsafe?
Two Schools of Thought on Expired Medication
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) conducted a study to test drugs beyond their expiration when the military was faced with tossing and replacing their stock of drugs every couple of years or so. The SLEP (shelf life extension program) has been administered by the Food and Drug Administration for the United States Department of Defense (DOD) for more than 20 years. Based on stability assessment data for 3,005 lots of 122 different drugs, since 1986, 88% of the lots were extended beyond their original expiration date. Of the 2,652 lots extended, only 18% were eventually terminated due to failure. The rest of the lots are either still active (35%) or were abated (47%) by the military.
That has been the basis for one school of thought regarding expired medication. The FDA warned that the study did not mirror the drugs in your own medicine cabinet well enough for a general conclusion to be drawn, though. The FDA advised caution, even though the study concluded that -- with a few exceptions like tetracycline, nitroglycerin, and insulin -- drugs remain stable for years beyond their expiration.
That's the other school of thought: It's just too risky to take expired medication. According to the FDA website, once you are beyond the expiration date, there is no guarantee regarding effectiveness or safety.
The Bottom Line from the FDA
“Expiration dates on medical products are a critical part of determining if the product is safe to use and will work as intended,” says FDA pharmacist Ilisa Bernstein. If your medicine has expired, don't use it.
Don't Be Tempted to Use Expired Medicines. By Sherunda Lister, Office of Communications. FDA.gov. 4/25/2011. http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/SpecialFeatures/ucm252375.htm
Drug Expiration Dates - Do They Mean Anything? The Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide. November 2003. http://www.health.harvard.edu/fhg/updates/update1103a.shtml
Stability Profiles of Drug Products Extended Beyond Labeled Expiration Dates. Lyon RC et al. Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences Vol. 95, NO. 7, July, 2006. Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com). DOI 10.1002/jps.20636.