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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. rose says:

    I wouldn’t want to put something in to my body that is harmful to flush !

  2. anon says:

    Be careful taking expired meds….its not just about lack of efficacy, there are some that become toxic once they pass their expiration date.

    Yes, toxic. Poisonous. Literally. Poison. I’m not kidding.

    Now are some drugs perfectly safe to take after expiration date? Yes. And if you know the pharmacological makeup of the drugs you’re taking you can make more informed choices.

    But remember, there is so much we don’t know. About the human body and how it works. About how drugs we’ve created work. And when you combine the human body and a medical condition we don’t fully understand (because we never do) and a medication or two or three and other unknown variables (that grapefruit you have for breakfast could screw the whole thing up; when you combine all that, its just best guessing based on our limited knowledge.

    And all that is usually the very basic circumstances under which people take medication.

    So for all we know, remember that there’s volumes we don’t. So if we know that its best to take a medication before a particular.date of expiration, its worth sticking to if you can.

  3. interested reader says:

    I think the best way to dispose of old meds is to burn them in a fire safe container on your sidewalk outside.

    I think that companies like USANA and other “autopay” ordering organizations cause a lot of waste as people get bottle after bottle of vitamins; many people are simply not in a good habit of vitamin taking, and this leads to many bottles in our cupboards that we forget about.

    I agree that 5 years for vitamins is probably the limit, but I have some alfalfa that I take periodically that I have to confess I’ve likely had around for 10 years maybe more – it’s hard to know – there was no date on the bottle.

    I would smell the vitamins and if the odor is not pleasant or they have discolored or gotten wet or been left in a hot location, then discard them.

    To prevent a vitamin overload in your home, study on why you take them, and then get organized in your taking of them – else it is simply a waste of your hard earned money. In general, people who are eating properly, may only need a small number of vitamins on a regular basis.

    Visit a health food store and get a list of what vitamin is recommended for what “ailment”. You will fast narrow down the list to what works for you.
    Calcium magnesium zinc (s recommended for nearly every adult, as is Vit D (up to 6000 mg/day). Garlic tabs are great in the winter, along with Cod Liver Oil (Omega 3) to keep away the winter sniffles. Since taking garlic tabs (odorless) and Cod liver oil gel caps I have seriously not been sick with colds for 5 winters. Omega 3-6-9 combination works well too, as does Flax Seed OIl. You can alternate these on different days to use up supplies. If you have a one-a-day multi-vitamin, alternate these too so you don’t take more than you actually need (multi’s often have Vitamin A and E and calc-mag. Figure out what the RDI is for each vitamin, study your labels, and measure out your vitamins in an organized fashion. It does not work to have a mess of vitamins on your counter without some kind of chart and undestanding of how to take them.
    List all the vitamins you have, write down why you are taking it so you understand why, write down exactly what each tablet contains, find out the Recommended daily intake and then make a list of the daily dosages you would like to take. Get a good pill organizer that is large enough to handle all the pills you might want to take in a 2 week period. The best pill organizers have generous holding capacity, and allow 5 daily dosages to be meted out. This way if you have to take a pill before breakfast it can have it’s own compartment, etc. It is quite complex to say the least, but some vitamins work best on empty stomach (such as Protein powders), others best taken with food or a meal. Get familiar with your stuff.

  4. DIANE says:

    i bought the other day ONE DAILY WOMENS,multivitamin/multimineral, along with TRIPLE OMEGA 3-6-9 FLAX,FISH AND BORAGE OILS as a mark down in a store outlet, they are both a year old, i wonder if it is still ok to take them, knowing they may loss strenth, but would it cause death?


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