Out with the Old, In with the New: The Importance of Expiration Dates on Medications

Patient Expert

Do you take note of the expiration dates of your medications, both prescription and over-the-counter?   I must admit that I do not always check the dates printed on the packaging.   But I'm here to tell you that it is an important thing to do.   In recent weeks, our household has encountered a couple of situations where taking expired medications have produced less than satisfactory results.

The first situation involved an over-the-counter medication to help with chest congestion.   This drug is one of those which had previously been available by prescription only but is now available over-the-counter.   My mother looked through our "drug drawer" to see if we still had some Mucinex on hand - we did.   She began to take it, following the directions, but didn't experience much improvement in her symptoms.

I checked the original container and discovered that our bottle of pills was at least two years beyond the expiration date.   Oops.   Those pills were likely several years old and had lost their potency.   She stopped taking them.   Some drugs may become more potent or less stable over time and should not be taken past their expiration date.

So I looked through our supply of OTC drugs to identify the ones which need to be tossed, the ones which are quickly approaching their disposal date, and which ones should be okay to use for awhile longer.   Our drug drawer lost some weight and gained some extra space in the process.   Although rules may vary according to where you live, it is important to follow safe disposal practices when clearing out your excess medications.

The second situation is somewhat related to my recent relapse.   One of the symptoms of this exacerbation was/is spasticity.   The back of my legs and calves (especially on the left) would get tight and tighter, putting undue pressure on the front of my knees and causing much pain and discomfort.   Before the round of Solumedrol I had in November, I had begun taking more and more Baclofen in an attempt to deal with this muscle tightness.   Fortunately the IV steroids made the tightness disappear completely, which was awfully nice.

After I completed the oral steroid taper,   the spasticity began to slowly creep back.   So I tried taking more Baclofen which may or may not have been working.   When I visited with my neuro nurse practitioner last Monday, I asked for a new prescription for Baclofen because it turns out that my current supply comes from a prescription filled in December 2008.   On the bottle is the instruction to discard the medication after December 2009, but who really pays attention to such things?   So it's time to discard what few pills are remaining and obtain a new supply.   This time I will not get as many pills at once to avoid having them expire on me.

Discard date vs. Expiration date

One thing that has me wondering exactly how long you can safely use or keep prescription medications comes from the fact that often the real expiration date of the drug is not listed on the prescription bottle.   If the pharmacist fills your prescription in one of those clear amber plastic bottles, then all the information you have to go off of is the "discard after" date.   This date is always one year from the time the prescription was originally filled.

However, if the medication comes pre-packaged from the drug company in 1-month or 3-month supplies and the pharmacist prints a new label with your specific information to attach to one of these bottles, then the actual expiration date will be on the original drug label which is likely hiding underneath the newly-printed label.   I have several prescriptions which are provided to me in these original bottles.   Here is what I found when I examined four of them:

  • Simvastatin - Discard after date: Oct 2012; Expiration date: Apr 2013
  • Buproprion XL - Discard after date: Oct 2012; Expiration date: May 2013
  • Synthroid - Discard after date: Nov 2012; Expiration date: January 2013
  • Nuvigil - Discard after date: Nov 2012; Expiration date: May 2016

It is nice to have the "real" expiration date provided somewhere on the packaging.   If this medication is prescribed at an amount which I need to take and I take the medication as prescribed, then there shouldn't be any pills remaining when the expiration date approaches.   But medications which are prescribed to have on hand and take "as needed" are more likely to sit around until they are no longer safe or effective.

Out with the Old

So as the year is quickly coming to a close, I would suggest that it is a perfect time to go through your own medication supply and remove the drugs which are expired.   While you are at it, you might even look through the cans in your cupboard and weed out those foods which are beyond their expiration dates.   I recently found some cans of yams which were expired in 2006 and some bottles of salad dressing which had passed maturity in 2008.

Don't wait until "spring cleaning" season to rummage through your drawers and cabinets.   Use these cold winter months when you are stuck inside to take stock of what you have on hand and to clear out space for fresh supplies.   What a great way to celebrate the New Year.

Out with the old and in with the new.   As the holidays are in full swing, I wish you and yours a happy and healthy 2012.   Thank you for making my life with MS more joyous throughout the year.