How Long Do Prescriptions Last?

First, a word of warning. If you get your prescriptions wet or store them on the windowsill, then all bets are off. The water or the sunlight will alter the prescriptions and make them much less effective.

Also, if you notice that your prescriptions have changed color or altered in consistency, I would bring them back to the pharmacist to make sure there isn’t something wrong with them. If, in the rare case they’ve changed color or shape coming from the pharmacy, take them back immediately! While multiple safeguards are in place, mistakes can happen.

So,Chances are pretty good that it is still fine. But how much longer than the expiration date is it “safe” to take a drug?

We don’t know. The manufacturers and the pharmacists are going to be very conservative with their estimates. They suffer if something isn’t effective, and they benefit when patients buy more drugs.

So no one is checking to see if consumer drugs are still safe after the expiration date. We do have information about government depots of drugs. Those drugs last well beyond the expiration date, “by an average of 57 months.” For those of you doing the math, that’s almost five years after the expiration date on the label. (Thanks to the Post-Gazette article covering this in depth).

But this information, the best available, hasn’t filtered down to even Consumer Reports. The medical head there gives a blanket recommendation to throw away all medication a year after expiration, and says that expired tetracycline can do kidney damage. (Con Rep here).

Ok, so if that is the case, let’s look for the medline citation on that effect. We come up with one report of kidney toxicity linked to tetracycline, from 1966! Yikes! (citation here). The studies since then indicate that tetracycline itself can be toxic to the kidneys, whether or not it is expired. (2002 study here) So there isn’t sufficient evidence to discard that prescription either.

What is a consumer to do? Start by getting smaller prescriptions for anything you get PRN (take as needed). Don’t keep the medications around unless you need them. But then keep them dry and safe, and discard them the same way you would a spice or something else that can keep, but may lose potency over time. Use the expiration date as an indicator, but not necessarily the last word on when things should go.


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