Rx FAQ: Can I take my medication if it’s expired?

An older woman checks her prescription label to see if her medication has expired.

You have a headache and reach into your medicine cabinet for some ibuprofen. As you open the bottle, you notice the printed expiration or ‘use by’ date. It expired a year ago. Should you still take it?

Our pharmacists often get this question.

“We don’t advise patients to use any medication beyond the expiration date or ‘use by’ date,” explained Bill Smith, a registered pharmacist at Express Scripts® Pharmacy. “There’s no way for us to determine the safety. The safest thing is to get a fresh supply of medication.”

Here’s why pharmacists don’t recommend taking an expired medication.

To ensure your medication is effective

In 1979, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required drug manufacturers to put expiration dates on prescription and over-the-counter medications (vitamins and supplements don’t apply). An expiration date indicates the last date at which they can guarantee the medication will be safe and work as intended. After that expiration date, there’s no guarantee because chemical compounds in medication break down over time, decreasing the medication’s potency.

In the case of common OTC medications like Advil, Tylenol,® or Benadryl®, that means the medication may not work as well (or at all) to alleviate your symptoms.

The situation becomes much more risky when you’re taking medication to treat a serious or chronic condition. For example:

  • Expired antibiotics may fail to treat an infection, cause an illness to become worse, or create antibiotic resistance.
  • Taking expired blood thinners could result in blood clots or stroke.
  • Taking expired insulin could cause you to have higher blood sugar levels.
  • An expired EpiPen may fail to stop an allergic reaction.
  • Expired birth control pills can lead to an unplanned pregnancy.

To prevent medication contamination

Certain medications, particularly liquid medications, are at risk of becoming contaminated with bacteria or fungus when they are past their expiration date. Some examples include liquid antibiotics and eye drops.

To prevent side effects

When medications degrade, they can produce toxic compounds that can cause unintended side effects. For example, expired tetracycline (an antibiotic) can lead to kidney damage.

The right way to store medications

Medications can expire prior to their medication expiration date if they aren’t stored properly. Heat and moisture can cause the medication to break down faster than expected. Some medications, such as liquid antibiotics and insulin, need to be stored in the refrigerator. Make sure to check the medication label for storage instructions, or reach out to your pharmacist if you need any clarification.

The right way to dispose of expired medications

The best way to get rid of an expired medication is through a drug take-back program. Check with your local public health department or police department to find a location near you. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) also sponsors National Prescription Drug Take Back Day in communities nationwide every April and October.

When a take-back option isn’t available, the FDA recommends either flushing the medication down the sink or toilet or disposing of the medication in the household trash. View the full FDA guidelines including the FDA flush list and steps for throwing away medication safely.

Expiration date extensions

There are certain situations where the FDA can extend the expiration date of a medication if there is data that supports it, if there are medication shortages, or if it’s being stored in an environmentally controlled federal stockpile to prepare for public health emergencies. For example, the FDA extended the shelf life of numerous COVID-19 vaccines, treatments, and at-home tests. Reach out to your prescriber or pharmacist to find out if the expiration date of your medication may have been extended.

When in doubt, ask your pharmacist

If you ever have questions about your medication’s expiration date, safety, or effectiveness, Express Scripts® Pharmacy is here to help. Our specially trained pharmacists are available 24/7 to answer all of your medication questions so you always have the support you need.

Posted date: August 25, 2023

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