When we act like responsible adults, we always look at the expiration dates on the containers of prescription medicine and over-the-counter drugs that we use. Just to give one example, I can't count the number of times that I have tossed old aspirin tablets.
Now, it turns out, I was throwing away my money.
From now on I will be saving money after reading an article in the current issue of my favorite health newsletter, which I subscribe to the old-fashioned way, on paper. The article, "Out on a date" in the October issue of the "UC Berkeley Wellness Letter," explains that expiration dates are guarantees that prescription and over-the-counter drugs will be both potent and safe until then. But they don't mean that after the expiration date, they won't be effective or safe.
It all comes down to money. Ours and that of the drug companies.
"In many cases, drugs are stable for longer," the article concludes, "but there's little incentive for manufacturers to test them to see how long they will really last. Longer expiration dates would cut down on sales."
At least in this respect (and in probably many other ways), my friend Gretchen Becker is wiser than me. She tells me that she was already taking the expiration dates with a grain of salt.
"It's not as if the medication is fine until midnight Sunday and then suddenly, starting Monday at 1 a.m., it's no good," she says.
How long since the drug companies stamped out their pills is just one of many factors determining when the drugs begin to break down. Heat, humidity, light, and temperature fluctuations all count. Those are good reasons for us to store our pills in cool, dry, and dark places. Keeping them in our cars and bathrooms would be the worst places.
Insulin is one huge exception to the expiration date game. Like nitroglycerine, the EpiPens that people use for severe allergic reactions, and liquid antibiotics, insulin degrades pretty quickly. People with diabetes who use insulin need to count on getting its full potency. After the expiration date, we can't.
The "UC Berkely Wellness Letter" doesn't specifically mention other injectable drugs like Byetta and Symlin. But in general it does say that we should toss out other expired drugs that are essential for our health, any that are discolored or have developed a strong smell, or have turned powdery. The less stable medications are those that are liquid or require refrigeration.
I don't know of any good evidence that any of these drugs would become harmful after their expiration dates. But in these cases it would be right to be responsible.