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Armalyn    Do drugs expire?

Yes, drugs do expire.

This is a commonly asked question. Drug manufacturers apply an expiry date to a product to guarantee its effectiveness. Like milk, medicine can go bad. Prescription drugs and over-the-counter drugs do not last forever. After the expiry date, the active ingredient in the medication can change in chemical nature and lose its therapeutic effect and may even become toxic.

Prescription labels on pill bottles do not have the drug’s expiry date because the prescription medicine you receive is dispensed from large stock bottles that have an expiry date written on them. So, you can request the pharmacist to write down the expiry date for you. The pharmacy ensures the drug you get is not expired. It is not likely that you will have medication leftover because the doctor usually prescribes a specific amount of drug to be used up within a certain length of time. If you have a prescription bottle with some drug leftover and the prescription date was from 5 years ago, it is most probably expired. When in doubt, ask your pharmacist.

For life saving drugs such as an epinephrine auto-injector (Epipen is used for extreme allergic reactions) or nitroglycerin sublingual tablets or spray (used for chest pain), you need to make sure your supply is never expired.

Proper Drug Storage

In order for the medication to last up to the expiry date, it should be kept at optimal storage conditions. Depending on what the drug is, storage conditions may vary.

Many prescription and over-the-counter drugs need to be kept at room temperature. Optimal storage would be a cool, dark, and dry place away from extreme temperatures and away from children as well as household pets. Avoid keeping your medications in the traditional bathroom medicine cabinet since there is usually a lot more humidity in this room. Also avoid storing your drugs in the kitchen near the sink or stove because the moisture and heat can cause the effectiveness of the medicine to deteriorate.

Certain prescription medications such as some antibiotic liquids, acne creams and gels, skin patches, contraceptive devices, eye drops, insulin, vaccinations, and injectable drugs need to be kept cool. These products must be kept refrigerated and not frozen or else they will lose effectiveness and cannot be used anymore. Once these refrigerated drugs are taken out of the fridge and kept at room temperature, the drugs expire faster. Not all liquid medications should be kept cool. Specific drugs in liquid form break down when kept in the fridge.

Some drugs are supplied in glass bottles or are individually wrapped in foil packaging to avoid exposure to air, humidity or light. Certain medications break down easily when exposed to moisture so they need to be in airtight containers. Pill bottles are usually opaque or brown vials to protect the drug from light. Some pill bottles contain a piece of cotton that keeps the pills from shaking around. This should be removed and discarded after opening because it can collect moisture.

What to do with expired medications?

Bring any expired or unused drugs to your pharmacy to be disposed of properly. Avoid throwing out your medicine in the household garbage. Also avoid flushing it down the toilet or washing it down the sink because this could have negative effects on the environment. Pharmacies send the outdated or unwanted drugs to a pharmaceutical waste management system to be destroyed.

So, if you happen to have medicine, but do not know if it is still good to use or if it should be discarded, check the drug’s expiry date and find out whether or not the drug was kept at the proper storage conditions. If you are unsure, please ask your pharmacist.


The above information is intended for educational purposes only. Always consult with your doctor, pharmacist or qualified health care professional to receive proper medical treatment.

Armalyn Tesoro is a graduate of the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Science degree in Pharmacy. She is currently working as a licensed community pharmacist at Wal-Mart on Ellice and Empress.

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