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How Legitimate Are Drug Expiration Dates?

Good news: That expired Pepto will probably work just fine

Before coronavirus, consuming expired foods meant you were “gross,” “taking unnecessary risks” and “too lazy to get your ass up and go to the grocery store.” Today, though, consuming expired food makes you a hero, flattening the curve by avoiding leaving your apartment. 

Because, newsflash: Expiration dates are fake, bucko! They’re designed by Big Grocery Store to make you throw out perfectly good foods, and basically just to cover a company’s ass. An expiration date is a window of liability — the less time a food manufacturer is responsible for the item, the better for them. 

The same is true for over-the-counter medicines. It might seem like taking expired medicine is a bit more serious than swigging some perfectly-fine-smelling expired milk, and it can be: If the medicine is a life-or-death kind of thing like Narcan or an EpiPen, you definitely want 100 percent confidence that its ingredients are still effective. But if you just have a li’l tummy ache from eating freezer-burnt pizza rolls? You’re probably gonna be fine in the event that that expired Pepto-Bismol doesn’t cure the pain. 

More importantly, though, the Pepto probably will still work. Even that EpiPen retains 84 percent of its potency four years after its expiration, and many other drugs will function even longer. 

So why all these bogus sell-by dates? 

The Food and Drug Administration requires expiration dates as a guarantee of a drug’s stability and effectiveness. And while expiration dates set a standard of safety and purity, they can actually be extended. In 1986, the FDA and the Department of Defense developed the Shelf-Life Extension Program (SLEP) in order to assess the effectiveness of the military’s massive soon-to-expire stockpile of medicines to save them from being thrown out. In one study, it was found that 90 percent of more than 100 drugs measured were still effective three years after expiration, with some still potent even 15 years after expiration. While SLEP’s study measured drugs that regular civilians might not often need, like antibiotics for malaria, a more recent study from 2012 found similar results for more common medications. 

Now, there are some medications that didn’t hold up. Aspirin doesn’t remain effective long after expiration, and neither do liquid antibiotics. But most medicines, like cough syrup, antihistamines or other common pain relievers, worked just fine. “For many common conditions, such as allergies, headaches or back pain, I’m willing to take the risk of applying my own, modest extension to the expiration date,” wrote Robert H. Shmerling, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School for Harvard Health Publishing

If it turns out these products are no longer effective, you might still be uncomfortable, but there’s not actually a risk involved in taking them — i.e., they don’t suddenly turn into poison the moment they age past their expiration date.

When it comes to prescription medications, though, it’s hard to say. For some medications that need to be taken daily in perpetuity, like blood pressure medications, an expired pill could pose a serious risk to someone’s health if it’s ineffective. For medications prescribed for short-term treatment of pain or infections that you still have sitting in your medicine cabinet, it’s a different issue: In these cases, even if it’s not expired, the problem is that the medication likely isn’t being taken as prescribed. While you might think you’re experiencing the same type of ear infection you had three years ago, you don’t know for sure. It’s better to consult your doctor or pharmacist before doing so, as they can tell you of any drug interactions or risks to be aware of. 

Not to be a party pooper, but the same problems are true for taking medications originally prescribed to someone else. Taking someone else’s prescription is illegal, but more importantly, it’s dangerous. Not only could there be dangerous contraindications you aren’t aware of, but prescriptions are often tailored to someone’s weight. So what’s effective for one person can result in an overdose in another. 

In short, if you’re trying to work with what you’ve got in your medicine cabinet during quarantine, you’ll probably be fine. Your year-expired Tums or DayQuil should still work, and if it doesn’t, well, sorry. You’ll still survive. But with prescriptions? Ehhhhhhh. Call a doctor first.

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