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How Long Do Medications Last?

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Readers want to know: Are medications that have passed their expiration dates good to use, or should they be discarded? Here's the answer from Johns Hopkins.

Think of expiration dates -- which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires be placed on most prescription and over-the-counter medications -- as a very conservative guide to longevity. The expiration date is a guarantee from the manufacturer that a medication will remain chemically stable -- and thus maintain its full potency and safety -- prior to that date. Most medications, though, retain their potency well beyond the expiration date, and outdated medications, whether prescription or over-the-counter, are not usually harmful.

In a study conducted by the FDA on a large stockpile of medications purchased by the military, 90% of more than 100 medications were safe and effective to use years after the expiration date. The drugs in the FDA study, however, were stored under ideal conditions -- not in a bathroom medicine cabinet, where heat and humidity can cause drugs to degrade.

If your medications have been stored under good conditions, they should retain all or much of their potency for at least one to two years following their expiration date, even after the container is opened. But you should discard any pills that have become discolored, turned powdery, or smell strong; any liquids that appear cloudy or filmy; or any tubes of cream that are hardened or cracked.

To help maintain potency, store your medications in a closet or cabinet located in a cool, dry room. Also, don’t mix medications in one container: chemicals from different medications can interact to interfere with potency or cause harmful side effects. If two or more medications have been mingled for any period of time, discard them.

A few medications, like insulin and some liquid antibiotics, do degrade quickly and should be used by the expiration date. Also, consider replacing any outdated medications that you’re taking for a serious health problem, since its potency is more critical than that of an over-the-counter drug you take for a headache or hay fever. If in doubt, consult a pharmacist.

Posted in Prescription Drugs on April 21, 2009


Medical Disclaimer: This information is not intended to substitute for the advice of a physician. Click here for additional information: Health After 50 Disclaimer


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Health After 50 Alerts registered users may post comments and share experiences here at their own discretion. We regret that questions on individual health concerns to the editors cannot be answered in this space.

The views expressed here do not constitute medical advice, and do not represent the position of Scientific American Health After 50 or Remedy Health Media, LLC, which has no responsibility for any comments posted on this site.


I recall reading from a reliable source that outdated cipro can be deadly. It seems to me that this is a very serious omission from your artical and should be corrected immediately.

David New York City

Posted by: DavidAAA | April 25, 2009 1:13 PM

Need to know more about outdated cipro. Can it truly be deadlly?

Posted by: suzannepepin | May 11, 2009 4:31 PM

Yes, Suzanne, it does give one pause for concern when no one from Johns Hopkins responds to such a critical question. Generaliztions such as the above in answer to the specific question regarding Cipro are worse than useless -- they could be deadly !

Posted by: DavidAAA | February 27, 2011 9:45 PM

Bonnie bal, I mis-read the authorship of your remarks re Cipro on Feb 26 2011 and did not properly credit them to you. Best regards, David in NYC

Posted by: DavidAAA | February 27, 2011 10:20 PM

To DavidAAA: You may be interested to know that I also subscribe to the Berkeley Wellness Alerts, a service similar to these Johns Hopkins Health Alerts. Over the years, I have posted four comments or questions in response to their articles. In every case, a response from the Editors has been posted within 24 hours - usually much less. Interesting, eh?

Posted by: | March 1, 2011 7:45 AM

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