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January 2, 2011

BehindTheMedspeak: What should you do with medications that have reached their "discard by" dates?


I've been meaning to address this topic for a long time (years) but have been unable to find much information beyond the standard advice (discard them properly, preferably by returning them to a pharmacy for environmentally-friendly disposal).

OK, no one would argue with that course of action, certainly not me.

But does the medicine do a stagecoach turn and revert to a pumpkin, as it were, on its discard date?

No, it doesn't.

In fact, the discard date is always conservative, meaning that the drugs in a container (assuming they were stored properly in the dark in a closed medicine chest or cupboard) will retain their efficacy and potency for a significant period of time beyond their expiration date.

How long, joe?

Assuming the discard date is one year from the day dispensed — pretty much the rule in the U.S. — I'd say you could count on six more months at pretty much full potency.

Even after that the drugs will only gradually lose their strength, at a rate dependent on their origin (natural or synthetic), class, molecular structure and method of storage.

Still, as a rule I'd still advise discarding drugs as directed on the label, but I also am realistic and aware that for many people it's not easy to pay for their medications.

The advice herein is primarily for those who find themselves in a money and/or access crunch and at a loss as to how to proceed.

As a rule of thumb it would seem to me that keeping medications in the refrigerator would prolong their life span.

However, if there is even the smallest possibility that a child might open that refrigerator, far better to keep the medications in a protected location.

As to putting drugs in the freezer: I wouldn't do it.


Because freezing and then thawing might somehow introduce moisture into the container, causing degradation and loss of potency.

Anyhow, the outline above is pretty much how I deal with "discard by" dates.

You might well disagree.

In fact, I hope you do, and I'd be delighted to learn more about this curiously unaddressed — at least in the medical and pharmacological literature I've consulted – subject.

Note that I'm not talking about expiration dates, which are usually two to five years after the date of production and apply to unopened containers.

January 2, 2011 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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Nitroglycerine - 1,2,3-Trinitroxypropane - is highly unstable - and it is an effective vasodilator for angina sufferers. It is cheap - thank goodness - because out-of-date ineffective cardiac meds can prove deadly.

Whole classes of meds are stable as hell while, others have to be compounded just before administration. It is fairly well impossible to give general advice regarding such a diverse universe of substances (water for injection U.S.P. Has an expiration date.....why? Will it decay into dihydrogen monoxide? Will the glass vial turn back into sand?).

I know of one expensive med mistake:

Cutting corners with birth control meds leads to parenthood.

Posted by: Lawlibrarian | Jan 3, 2011 1:14:34 AM

Yes — all of your points are spot on.

Posted by: bookofjoe | Jan 2, 2011 4:29:07 PM

There are only a few (common) drugs that decay into something bad. For instance, don't the 'cyclines decay into something toxic? But other than those, there are few drugs that decay to the point that they aren't useful...even at non-full potency, what exactly is the halflife? Even if you aren't getting full potency, you are probably getting 80 to 90 % at worst. Considering that most drugs are given far in excess of what is needed, hoping to saturate the system with the drug and worrying more about what the detrimental dosage is as opposed to the effective, isn't is safe to say that even far past expiration, most are still going to be good?

Just curious...

Posted by: clifyt | Jan 2, 2011 3:08:12 PM

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