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What Does Medicine Expiration Date Really Mean?
You have a headache, so you look around in your medicine cabinet until you finally find a couple of painkillers. You see that they expired a few months ago. Are they safe? Will they work?
The answers probably are “yes,” and “yes, but maybe not as well.”
According to experts, the expiration date that appears on most medication indicates the date that, based on testing, the medication begins to become less potent and effective. Most medicines are safe to take after they have expired, but they might not work as well.
Very few medicines become toxic after their expiration date. But for insulin and other injectable medicines as well as eye drops, the expiration date is the last date at which the medicine is guaranteed to be sterile and free of contamination. Insulin vials usually expire 28 days after opening. The sterility of eye drops is based on the expiration date printed on the package; it doesn’t matter when they are opened.
Your medication will maintain its potency longer if you store it properly – which generally does not mean keeping it in your bathroom cabinet. Bathrooms tend to be filled with heat and humidity, which can cause tablets to absorb moisture from the air and melt or stick together. Cream medication can separate in the heat and humidity. Again, this rarely causes a medicine to become toxic, but it can cause it to lose its effectiveness more quickly.
Especially with prescription medicine, always ask your doctor or pharmacist how best to store it and how long it will continue to work. Also ask if there are any special directions for taking the medication; for example, should you take it with food, or not eat for a period after you take it? These instructions can help ensure that you get the most from your medication.
If your medication is expired or if you no longer need to take it, it is important to dispose of any leftovers properly. Never flush medication down the drain or the toilet, because it can get into the groundwater. This is especially true of medication that contains antibiotics or hormones.
You also don’t want your medication to fall into the wrong hands – whether that means children who might eat what they think is candy or people with a substance abuse problem. You can put your medication in a bag filled with coffee grounds or kitty litter, add a little water, seal the bag, and then throw it out with the trash.
If you are disposing of anything with a needle, make sure you first put it inside an empty container such as a thick plastic bottle to protect people from being pricked by the needle.
Perhaps the best way to dispose of expired medication or medication you no longer need is to take it to a medicine collection site, where it will be disposed of by experts. Pharmacies, hospitals, police departments and city governments often operate these collection sites, either occasionally or on an ongoing basis. Check for a collection site in your area.