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Do Expiration Dates on Drugs or Vitamins Matter?

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Pharmacists SignMy lovely wife got a little under the weather last week, so she reached into our medicine cabinet to find some NyQuil or Robitussin to help her beat back the cold. To her surprise, the Robitussin had expired about six months ago and she wasn’t sure how effective it was going to be. We had always heard that expired drugs and vitamins were fine, they just lost a bit of their effectiveness. As for how much? We didn’t know… so we turned to the internet.

Expired Vitamins

Supplements, like vitamins, aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and so don’t even need to have an expiration date. For that reason, most people recommend that you only buy vitamins with an expiration date because most of the reputable producers will put one.

With vitamins, the chemical composition will change over time though they will still remain viable for up to five years. The purpose of the expiration date is to indicate when the manufacturer believes the vitamin will be at the highest level of quality and that date is usually conservative.

The two enemies of vitamins are heat and moisture, so keep them out of direct sunlight in a cool and dry environment. Don’t put them in the refrigerator though, it’ll speed up the breakdown process.

The only risk when you take an expired vitamin is that it won’t be as effective as intended, though there are no other risks.

Expired Drugs

Expired drugs also much like vitamins in that the expiration date is marked for when the drug will be at its peak effectiveness. Consumer Reports recommends that you discard any drug that has expired more than two years ago or if they show any sign of degredation or spoilage (crumbling, melted capsules, etc.).

As much as I am a fan of saving money, keeping drugs around when their effectiveness is questionable just doesn’t make any sense. Two years, five for vitamins, seems like a long enough time that you probably forgot you had them and bought a replacement. Either way, if you have a headache, taking an Advil that’s half as effective isn’t going to cut it.

Finally, be sure to go through your medicine cabinet every once and a while to find the older stuff and take it first.

If you want to read more about drugs, vitamins and expiration, here’s a great writeup by the Health Sciences Institute.

One final note, do not dispose of expired drugs or vitamins by flushing them down the toilet. It’s always better for you to throw something out in the trash instead of in flushing, regardless of what it is, because that stuff will get processed in a water treatment facility. For drugs and vitamins, they get into the water and can’t be filtered out at the facility, meaning they get reintroduced into drinking water. Just toss them in the trash.

(Photo: striatic)

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42 Responses to “Do Expiration Dates on Drugs or Vitamins Matter?”

  1. otipoby says:

    My wife won’t give our little children any medication that is expired – even just a couple months. You pick you battles, and this one, my wife wins.

    • Jim says:

      I think that’s smart because in children dosages are usually much lower due to their size. If you can’t be sure of the efficacy of a particular pill, you don’t want to give them too much or too little when the cost to do it right is so small.

  2. NateUVM says:

    It might also be good to mention something about the method of disposal…

    Please, PLEASE do not simply flush down the toilet or down the disposal or anything. The level of pharmaceuticals in our water supply might stagger some. Anecdotally, there are tons of cases each year where people get sick due to their exposure to these drugs.

    So don’t flush them! Instead, throw them away in the garbage. But be sure to hide them in garbage that no one would EVER want to pick through. You don’t want people who might be….um, desperate for any sort of high, to come across them. Used (and I mean REALLY used) baby diapers work well for this.

    Sorry to be graphic, but I just wanted to mention something about that.

    • Soccer9040 says:

      Ha – thats the 1st ever use I have heard for a dirty diaper.

      To each his own I guess.

      • NateUVM says:

        Perhaps more to your point, I’m not sure what other “use” for a dirty diaper there may be…

    • no name says:

      well i am sorry to say i know this is a very late reply but why would you throw them away? Animals can always find a way in to your trash and dig them out. Not to mention that they can eat them as well and become ill from them. What may be ok for you and i to take may just kil or really harmand animal. Lets just say that something dug them out of your garbage and you didnt notice. Here comes a child and sees this on the ground. Now i know children should not be picking things off the ground and eating them but there are that do then what?

  3. CK says:

    I have plenty of out of date OTC meds. They seem to work fine. Maybe it’s just a placebo effect but hey it works.

    • Jim says:

      The purpose of taking headache medicine is to get the headache away right? Either it works because the drug is effective or it’s a placebo, either way the end result is the same. :)

  4. zapeta says:

    We usually take vitamins until they’re gone, but we throw out expired drugs.

    Many pharmacies will accept expired drugs for disposal so that may be an option to get rid of the old stuff.

  5. babelfish81 says:

    Here’s some more tips on disposing of old meds. Someone mentioned putting them in used diapers, and that will certainly work. For those of us without access to dirty nappies, the recommended method is to mix the medication with something undesirable, like dirt, cat litter, or used coffee grounds or simply in a jar of salt water. Discard of the drugs in a rigid container (not cardboard or weak plastic, or something breakable like glass) and tape the container closed so it doesn’t come open in your garbage.
    Most pharmacies and hospitals will not accept outdated prescription drugs, because it is a liability for them to do so.

    • NateUVM says:

      That was more the point I suppose I was trying to make. To mix them with something that no one would “EVER want to pick through.” The dirty diapers were just an example to illustrate just how “undesireable.”

      The salt water is a good idea, if, as it would seem to this non-chemist, it accelerates the breakdown of the chemicals in addition to dissuading(is that even a word?) future use.

      • ziglet19 says:

        I’ve also seen recommendations to mix it with cayenne pepper or other spices to make it undesirable.

      • Shirley says:

        While not particularly economical, a raw egg white works wonderfully. Scrape the whole mess (mixed in tabs or opened capsules) into the garbage with the other trash.

  6. ziglet19 says:

    We have been unable to find a place that will take our discarded drugs. Our City recommends the same disposal method identified by babelfish.

  7. freeby50 says:

    You’re talking about over the counter drugs here right?

    If its a prescription drug then I’d be a little more careful with the expiration date and otherwise following its usage instructions.

  8. David says:

    2 of my doctors have told me that expiration dates on “solid” medicine doesn’t really matter. A few years wont make any difference in their effectiveness. “Liquid” or “capsules” are more important to watch for expiration dates.

    • Chris says:

      I have had similar advice from our family doctor.

    • Shirley says:

      My doctor also said this until he saw that my Rx was 8 years old. He wrote a new one immediately, but did say that the old one wouldn’t hurt me.

  9. eric says:

    Just to be safe I throw away anything past expiration. They usually last a few years so that’s long enough that I think it’s irrelevant. I just purge my medicine cabinet every once in awhile.

  10. Rosa Rugosa says:

    I always use drugs that are past their date – I notice that most drugs have a date that is one year from the fill date; I think it’s just a way for the drug companies to make more money. I obviously wouldn’t recommend this for drugs that are a matter of life and death, but for palliative drugs, sure, no problem.

  11. Rich says:

    I tend to buy the smaller quantities of OTC drugs. Yes, it may cost a little bit more, but I don’t have them hanging around forever either. So I don’t have to worry about disposing of them.

  12. Izalot says:

    If you’re worried about the efficacy of the expired medications. Then why not donate them to a needy country?

  13. jsbrendog says:

    i’ve never had any problem with expired ibuprofen. it still works whether it be the placebo effect or actually working.

  14. Interesting stuff Jim. Had no idea most vitamin supplements weren’t regulated, and only some are. The only thing I have are tylenol and alleve after playing too much tennis, but I should check those too. thnx.

  15. Diane Crowley says:

    My city provides a locked drop-off box for expired medications. The box is conveniently located at the Police Station! It was just installed a year ago and has been a big success.
    Check with your city, county or water district. If they don’t have a box, get involved until one is installed. It’s a great way to connect with your guvmn’t on a grassroots level and to help keep your drinking water clean too!

  16. conny says:

    Leave the pills at the pharmacy. They know what to do with it

  17. Wouldn’t dumping drugs in the landfill (which is where the garbage goes) ultimately put them into the water supply, too? After all, rain does fall on landfills. Over time it seeps through to the water table. And runoff would flow into the surface water.

    • NateUVM says:

      There are at least two things worth mentioning here…

      A lot of landfills now have barriers that prevent things from leeching into the water supply. Not always the case, and it isn’t always effective, but an effort is made.

      Second, if there were to be leeching, by the time it happens, the hope is that whatever active chemicals are present in the drugs at the time you dispose of them are at that point inert.

      Not to minimize your point, but there are a whole lot of other risky pollutants in landfills than just the expired drugs that might be in them. If the drugs were to leech through into the water table, there are probably a WHOLE LOT of other things leeching through, too. In this less-than-desireable case, at least you are containing the contamination to one, more specific locale, which is not the case if everyone just washes their pills down the drain at home.

    • Jim says:

      Yes, however when you dump it directly into the water, I’d imagine it’s far worse.

  18. zerralde says:

    Had no idea most vitamin supplements weren’t regulated, jus both some from vitasource comp, when I notice that the vitamin didn’t have a exp dd, I call them back to aks why..?? one of the manager got upset, but I rather buy my vitamin with exp DD.. Thanks.

  19. meds researcher says:

    most thorough shelf life of prescription pills study was US military:found that the wide variety they studied had not lost potency after 20 yrs

  20. Lillie says:

    Excellent point about the disposable of expired medication since it can be reintroduced into the water system. I make it a practice to monitor any product with an expiration date or “best if used by” label on it and do not question whether it should be used or discarded. My health has priority and there have been too many recalls on products that have been deemed safe without taking any chances on something that I know may be a risk.

  21. BrianC says:

    I have no problem taking expired OTC meds (I think my Tylenol expired in 2005-heh), but with prescription meds I’m more wary, and wouldn’t take anything over a year out-of-date.

  22. SSSS says:

    My mom gave me vitamin E for stretch marks(oil form, not capsule) and it had been expired for 18 years….is it still okay to use?

  23. Ashley says:

    I throw things away if they’ve expired although I’ve heard with certain supplements like spirulina they can be effective up to a year after expiration though they do lose some of their power…

    I buy tons of vitamins and did price shopping online yesterday. The best site I found for price and selection is:

    allstarhealth.com

    they have a 30 day return policy, a low price guarantee and flat rate shipping. I was amazed at how much prices vary from site to site on these items. Also if you use Mypoints.com you can get points for your purchase through them.

  24. Jody says:

    Thanks so much for the info! I was wondering the same thing. I have some of those womens vitamins that are pre-packaged. They are only a year old, so now I’m not too worried. Thanks :)

  25. justyeravgjen says:

    our pharmacy program research concluded: no to liquids or antibiotics, tablets probably just less effective, dispose by placing with cat litter or used coffee grounds in a ziploc bag. please inquire locally to donate not needed prescription meds not expired! if a controlled substance, especially marked schedule II (or 2), take to police station for disposal!


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