What you should know about expired prescription medication.

By Sesame Staff and Dr. Allison Edwards, Sesame Medical Director.

Did you know that each year 600+ million prescriptions go unused?

Open your medicine cabinet and chances are, you’ll find some expired medication. These leftover pills aren’t just a little old. They can actually be dangerous.

Friday, April 15 is National Clean Out Your Medicine Cabinet Day - a reminder to open your cabinet and get rid of unused medications. We talked to Sesame’s Medical Director Dr. Allison Edwards about old prescriptions, the potential hazards of expired pills and more.

Question: For medications, should the expiration date be strictly followed, or does the effectiveness of the medication just weaken after the expiration date?
Dr. Edwards: Expiration dates on medicines have been mandated for decades and serve as the date at which the medication is guaranteed – by its manufacturer – to have its full effect. There have been interesting studies done over the years that show that even years out – sometimes decades! – medicines retain a significant amount of their potency. This is not true of temperature-sensitive medicines, like insulin, but the average shelf-stable medicine, whether over-the-counter or prescription, is likely potent beyond its expiration date so long as it hasn’t been subjected to wild fluctuations in temperature or humidity.

Question: Does the expiration matter more if it’s a prescription vs. an over the counter medication?
Dr. Edwards: Expiration dates are similarly reliable – or unreliable! – for both prescription and over the counter medicines.


Question: At what point should over the counter medications be disposed of?
Dr. Edwards: You can likely keep a medication for a bit beyond its expiration date, but you have to know that anything kept beyond its expiration date may slowly be losing potency as it ages. So long as you keep your medicines in a cool, dry place, though, they should stay potent for quite some time. That said, things that are liquid or cream – or items that must be refrigerated – should probably adhere to expiration dates more closely.

Question: What’s the best way to dispose of expired medications?
Dr. Edwards: The DEA hosts a drug take back twice a year, which is a great time to safely dispose of any medications you have on hand, even controlled medications! The next one is on April 30th. The EPA also has an outline of the best ways to dispose of drugs here.

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Medical disclaimer

Sesame articles are reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, and qualified health care professionals. To read Sesame’s full medical disclaimer, click here. Sesame’s blog, or any linked materials, are not intended to serve as medical advice, nor is the information a replacement for expert medical advice rendered by a qualified doctor or health care professional.