Should patients use expired medications or not? It’s always best to use medications that are NOT expired; it’s just the safest route. If a medication is essential for a chronic and potentially life-threatening disease, for example, a heart condition, cancer treatment, seizure, or life-threatening allergy, it is probably wise to get a new prescription before it expires and keep up with refills as needed.
However, if a medication is needed, and the patient is not able to replace the expired medication, there is no evidence that it is unsafe to take the medication in most cases.1 The patient should be aware that it may not produce the desired therapeutic effect. If this is the case, a new prescription is needed.
If an expired medication is for a minor health problem, for example, for a headache, hay fever, or mild pain, it may also be safe to take it, although drug potency might not be 100% and it may not work as well. For example, if using ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) that’s outdated does not relieve your headache, it may have lost its potency. Research has shown many military stockpile medications retained 90% of their potency in their original stock bottle.3,8 However, storage conditions of these medications were optimized for temperature and humidity, and probably do not mimic the typical storage conditions of the average household prescription bottle.
If an expired medication is taken, and the patient notices the drug has no effect, the medication should be replaced. Some drugs are probably less likely to be safe if they’re expired:
- a biologic product
- a refrigerated liquid
- eye drops
- a specially compounded medication
- if it looks like it is degraded or cloudy, or has a noxious smell, it should be discarded and replaced.