Is It OK to Use Expired Asthma Medicines?

by John Bottrell Health Professional

You found your asthma medicine sitting at the bottom of your sock drawer and now you're wondering: Can I still use it? Is it safe? Will it still work? Is it okay to use expired asthma medicines?

Understanding changes in potency over time

All medicines begin to break down and lose potency over time. For this reason, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandates that all medicines have an expiration date. This date is the estimated date at which time the medicine will lose 10 percent of its potency. At this time, the manufacturer no longer guarantees the potency of the medicine.

Now, when will a medicine lose 10 percent of its potency? Studies show this varies depending on whether or not the product is in its original packaging, and where it has been stored, at what temperature, and what humidity?

The expiration date also assumes you are storing the medicine at the recommended temperature and humidity. Most medicine should be somewhere between 59 and 86 degrees F (15-30 degrees C) and away from light and moisture. You'll have to check the package of your medicines to see the exact recommendations. That’s why keeping medications in the bathroom is not a good idea.

Most research seems to suggest that most medicines are effective for two to three years after their date of manufacture, so long as they remain in their original packaging. This is important, considering most medicine sit on shelves in warehouses, trucks, and pharmacies for months, even years, before they are eventually sold.

As for most asthma medicines, the expiration date is generally one year from the date of sale. It represents the manufacturers assurance that the medication is still stable and maintains its identity, strength, quality, and purity when properly stored until that date is reached. It's more like an estimation than anything else.

That said, in 1986 the U.S. Department of Defense, in cooperation with the FDA, created the federal Sheld Life Extension Program (SLEP). Researcher have acknowledged that many medicines maintain potency long after their expiration dates.

This program was important because the military wanted to make sure stockpiled medicines and vaccines would still be potent, even if the manufacturer set expiration date had passed. The answer was that most are still potent and can still be used.

Are expired asthma medicines safe?

The answer here is yes. Most asthma experts will agree that expired asthma medicines are safe even after their expiration dates.

As a lifetime asthmatic I can attest that I have, from time to time, discovered a long-lost albuterol. I have discovered them in couch cushions or under beds. Back before I had a good job with benefits, I would use them because I had to. They did work, although they tasted like rotten mints.

You must also consider that most asthma experts recommend every asthmatic carry an asthma rescue inhaler (albuterol) at all times, or have one readily available for emergencies. Asthmatics can end up buying several of these inhalers and then misplace or forget where they are stored. Then when they are needed they are expired. My point here is, if you need it you need it. But consider that six months beyond the expiration date should be an essential cut off for use.

Still, as an asthma expert, I would highly recommend that you note the date on your inhalers, and make sure you replace them every year. This is important, especially when we're talking about your breathing here. You'll want to make sure the medicines you are relying on will be potent.

As far as medicines like Advair, Symbicort, Breo, Singulair, etc., these are medicines that you should be using on a daily basis to gain and maintain good control of your asthma. If used properly, they should not be around long enough to become expired. Still, sometimes you end up with duplicate prescriptions – so check dates and replace any leftovers that are expired.

Medications sometimes gets lost, misplaced or left somewhere and then retrieved at a later date. And, it's also important to note that asthma medicines tend to be very expensive. So this kind of tends to play a role in many of the questions we receive about: can I use expired asthma medicines?

Can you use expired inhalers?

Asthma medicines do gradually lose potency over time, although SLEP indicates they will still be effective for a while after the expiration date. Still, to guarantee your asthma medicines work for you, it's best not to use them too far after this date. After all, your breathing depends on it.

John Bottrell
Meet Our Writer
John Bottrell

John Bottrell is a registered Respiratory Therapist. He wrote for HealthCentral as a health professional for Asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).