What to Do with Expired Medicines

Chances are, somewhere in your home you’ve got at least one or two bottles of medicine that are past their expiration dates. These could include both over-the-counter products, such as ibuprofen or aspirin, and prescription medications.

So why do medicines even have expiration dates, and what should you do with expired medicines? Dan McCosley, PharmD, of UNC REX Pharmacy of Raleigh, answers these questions and more about expired medicines.

Why does medicine come with expiration dates, and what do the expiration dates mean?

Drugmakers are required to provide stability testing data with a proposed expiration date and storage conditions when they apply for U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval of a drug. The expiration date means the product will retain its strength, quality and purity until that date if it is stored under proper conditions.

The FDA verifies that an applicant’s proposed expiration date is supported by appropriate studies that the applicant has conducted. In addition, the FDA has a Shelf Life Extension Program in which it conducts periodic stability testing on prescription drugs, vaccines and medical products that are considered essential for public health emergency preparedness.

I store my medicines in my bathroom cabinet. Is that OK?

“Actually, the bathroom is the worst place to store medications,” McCosley says, because bathroom moisture can decrease a medication’s effectiveness before its expiration date.

For most medications, it is better to store them in a cool, dry place such as a dresser drawer, storage box, closet shelf or kitchen cabinet. However, certain medications need to be kept in a refrigerator, and others cannot be exposed to high temperatures.

All medications come with instructions about how they should be stored. Always check the label or box for storage instructions and follow them carefully.

Can you use medicine after its expiration date?

“You should never take a medication after its expiration date,” McCosley says. “Some medications start to break down and form toxic compounds as they get older.”

So taking a medication after its expiration date could land you in the hospital.

According to the FDA, “Expired medical products can be less effective or risky due to a change in chemical composition or a decrease in strength. Certain expired medications are at risk of bacterial growth and subpotent antibiotics”—in other words, antibiotics that are not as strong as they should be because of their age—“can fail to treat infections, leading to more serious illnesses and antibiotic resistance.”

In addition, some prescription medicines—such as opioids like oxycodone, morphine and fentanyl—are highly addictive. If they are not used for their intended purpose or properly discarded, they can be misused or abused.

Also, expired medicines can injure children or pets if taken by mistake.

For all of these reasons, proper disposal of unneeded medicines is essential.

What should I do with expired medicines?

The best way to dispose of expired medicines, McCosley says, is to drop them off in disposal boxes that are designed for that purpose. For example, there are two MedSafe disposal boxes at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill and another at the UNC Hospitals Hillsborough Campus.

In addition, Operation Medicine Drop provides medicine drop boxes at nearly 300 locations across North Carolina.

If you live in an area where no such drop boxes are available, then DisposeRX packets are also a good option, McCosley says. These can be ordered through Walmart’s website. In addition, the FDA provides instructions for how to dispose of some medicines in your household trash.

Learn more about safe and easy medication disposal using the blue MedSafe boxes at UNC Hospitals locations in Chapel Hill and Hillsborough.