All of us at some point or another have wondered if we can hold on to medicines past their expiration date, or do we need to throw them out? And if they're still good past the expiration date, how much past the expiration date? Well... the investigative journalism site ProPublica has been examining this issue, and they published an article saying researchers and the government find that many medicines may be good for YEARS past the expiration date. Yes - years!
According to people interviewed for the article, there are no documented cases of negative effects from taking expired drugs. However, while most medicines are fairly stable and last past the expiration date (they mention the exception of liquid medicines, the asthma inhalant albuterol, the topical rash spray diphenhydramine, and a local anesthetic made from lidocaine and epinephrine). Not mentioned, but there is also another one that degrades and can cause health problems such as Fanconi Syndrome: tetracycline. But other than those, it looks like many medicines are incredibly stable past the expiration date - especially when stored properly and in the original sealed containers. Do go read the whole article - it's eye-opening. Including the government's "Shelf Life Extension Program". Excerpts from ProPublica:
The box of prescription drugs had been forgotten in a back closet of a retail pharmacy for so long that some of the pills predated the 1969 moon landing. Most were 30 to 40 years past their expiration dates — possibly toxic, probably worthless. But to Lee Cantrell, who helps run the California Poison Control System, the cache was an opportunity to answer an enduring question about the actual shelf life of drugs: Could these drugs from the bell-bottom era still be potent?
Gerona and Cantrell, a pharmacist and toxicologist, knew that the term “expiration date” was a misnomer. The dates on drug labels are simply the point up to which the Food and Drug Administration and pharmaceutical companies guarantee their effectiveness, typically at two or three years. But the dates don’t necessarily mean they’re ineffective immediately after they “expire” — just that there’s no incentive for drugmakers to study whether they could still be usable.
What if the system is destroying drugs that are technically “expired” but could still be safely used? In his lab, Gerona ran tests on the decades-old drugs, including some now defunct brands such as the diet pills Obocell (once pitched to doctors with a portly figurine called “Mr. Obocell”) and Bamadex. Overall, the bottles contained 14 different compounds, including antihistamines, pain relievers and stimulants. All the drugs tested were in their original sealed containers. The findings surprised both researchers: A dozen of the 14 compounds were still as potent as they were when they were manufactured, some at almost 100 percent of their labeled concentrations. “Lo and behold,” Cantrell says, “The active ingredients are pretty darn stable.”
....That raises an even bigger question: If some drugs remain effective well beyond the date on their labels, why hasn’t there been a push to extend their expiration dates? It turns out that the FDA, the agency that helps set the dates, has long known the shelf life of some drugs can be extended, sometimes by years. For decades, the federal government has stockpiled massive stashes of medication, antidotes and vaccines in secure locations throughout the country. The drugs are worth tens of billions of dollars and would provide a first line of defense in case of a large-scale emergency.
Maintaining these stockpiles is expensive. The drugs have to be kept secure and at the proper humidity and temperature so they don’t degrade. Luckily, the country has rarely needed to tap into many of the drugs, but this means they often reach their expiration dates. Though the government requires pharmacies to throw away expired drugs, it doesn’t always follow these instructions itself. Instead, for more than 30 years, it has pulled some medicines and tested their quality.
Once a drug is launched, the makers run tests to ensure it continues to be effective up to its labeled expiration date. Since they are not required to check beyond it, most don’t, largely because regulations make it expensive and time-consuming for manufacturers to extend expiration dates, says Yan Wu, an analytical chemist who is part of a focus group at the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists that looks at the long-term stability of drugs. Most companies, she says, would rather sell new drugs and develop additional products. Pharmacists and researchers say there is no economic “win” for drug companies to investigate further. They ring up more sales when medications are tossed as “expired” by hospitals, retail pharmacies and consumers despite retaining their safety and effectiveness.
That being said, it’s an open secret among medical professionals that many drugs maintain their ability to combat ailments well after their labels say they don’t.....In 1986, the Air Force, hoping to save on replacement costs, asked the FDA if certain drugs’ expiration dates could be extended. In response, the FDA and Defense Department created the Shelf Life Extension Program. Each year, drugs from the stockpiles are selected based on their value and pending expiration and analyzed in batches to determine whether their end dates could be safely extended. For several decades, the program has found that the actual shelf life of many drugs is well beyond the original expiration dates.
A 2006 study of 122 drugs tested by the program showed that two-thirds of the expired medications were stable every time a lot was tested. Each of them had their expiration dates extended, on average, by more than four years, according to research published in the Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences. Some that failed to hold their potency include the common asthma inhalant albuterol, the topical rash spray diphenhydramine, and a local anesthetic made from lidocaine and epinephrine, the study said. But neither Cantrell nor Dr. Cathleen Clancy, associate medical director of National Capital Poison Center, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the George Washington University Medical Center, had heard of anyone being harmed by any expired drugs. Cantrell says there has been no recorded instance of such harm in medical literature.