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March 04, 2021

Here’s what happens to medicines once they expire

…and what you should do with them

Prevention Safety

Content sponsored by IBC - Native (195x33)

Purchased - Medications on the Shelves of a Medicine Cabinet smartstock/

Have you ever reached into your medicine cabinet for cold medicine only to find that it’s long past its expiration date? Desperate for relief from a persistent runny nose, you may have been tempted to simply take it and avoid an inconvenient trip to the pharmacy. But taking expired drugs can be risky — here’s why:

The purpose of expiration dates

Expiration dates on drugs were first introduced in 1979, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began requiring them as part of the approval process for prescription and over-the-counter medicines. Expiration dates are the point to which a manufacturer guarantees a drug’s effectiveness. The manner in which drugs are packaged and stored can impact their lifespan, but you can always find the expiration date and specific storage instructions (if required) stamped onto a medicine’s label or container.

The risks of keeping expired medicines

Over time, the chemical composition of medicines can change. When a drug loses its potency, it may no longer be effective. Some drugs can even begin to grow bacteria once they expire, putting you at risk for an infection. If you take an expired medication, you may not get the result you expect, or, even worse, you could end up with a serious illness.

Keeping out-of-date drugs in the house also poses another significant danger: the risk of them being abused or ending up in the wrong hands. More than 10 million Americans misuse prescription opioids each year and 50,000 kids are taken to the emergency room annually because they get into medicines while an adult is not supervising them. Leaving expired medicines in your medicine cabinet only increases these risks.

How to dispose of expired medicines

Never just throw expired drugs in the trash! The best way to dispose of expired medicines is to participate in a take-back program in your local community. These public health programs, including a national event each year, allow you to clean out your medicine cabinet all at once. If a take-back program is not an available option, check the FDA’s flush list to determine if your medicine can safely be disposed of by flushing it down the toilet. If a drug is unsafe to flush, you can mix it into kitty litter, coffee grounds, or soil, and seal them in a container before placing them into the trash. Certain, specific medicines may need to be flushed if they pose danger to children, pets, or others.

To help keep you and your family safe, make it a point to clean out your medicine cabinets at least one time each year. Check the expiration date on each medication thoroughly and be on the lookout for compromised packaging or anything else that might make drugs unsafe to use. This way, you’ll have peace of mind knowing that everything in the cabinet is safe and effective the next time you’re in need of relief for that runny nose or headache.

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