The Myth of Drug Expiration Dates

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I am frequently asked by my patients about using drugs that have an expiration date. I have done some research and will share my findings with you. It is common that hospitals often discard expensive medications, and nursing homes trash valuable medications after patients pass away or move out of the nursing facility. It is estimated such squandering eats up about $765 billion a year – as much as a quarter of all the country’s healthcare spending. Pharmacies across the country – in major medical centers and in neighborhood strip malls – routinely toss out tons of scarce and potentially valuable prescription drugs, when they hit their expiration dates.

The dates on drug labels are simply the point up to which the Food and Drug Administration and pharmaceutical companies guarantee their effectiveness, typically at two or three years. But the dates don’t necessarily mean they’re ineffective immediately after they expire.

What if the system is destroying drugs that are technically “expired” but could still be safely used? Several studies have shown that the drugs were still as potent as they were when they were manufactured, some at almost a 100% of their labeled concentrations. Get this: the Federal Drug Association, the agency that helps set the expiration dates, has long known the shelf life of some drugs can be extended, sometimes by years. Despite the difference in drugs’ makeup, most medications expire after two or three years.

My opinion is that most drug companies would rather sell new drugs and develop additional products than allow patients to use drugs that have exceeded the expiration date.

Most medical professionals, myself included, believe that many drugs maintain their ability to be effective and remain potent after their labels say they don’t.

To my knowledge, there has been no recorded instance of harm in medical literature from using medications beyond the expiration date.

It is of interest that in the year 2000, the American Medical Association adopted a resolution urging action and permitting the use of expired medication. The American Medical Association declared that the shelf life of many drugs seems to be “considerably longer” than their expiration dates, leading to “unnecessary waste, higher pharmaceutical costs and possibly reduced access to necessary drugs for some patients.”

What’s my advice? Most drugs can safely be used beyond their expiration date. I suggest that you contact your doctor. Most enlightened doctors will allow you to use drugs that are 2-3 years old. I would be cautious about using heart drugs and antibiotics beyond their expiration date. With the spiraling costs of medications, using drugs beyond their expiration date may be one simple idea of reducing healthcare costs without any risk of injury to patients.

Dr. Neil Baum is a Professor of Clinical Urology at Tulane Medical School and can be reached at 504 891-8454 or via his website, www.neilbaum.com

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