Ask Your Pharmacist

December 20, 2017

I went to get some stool softeners out of my medicine cabinet and noticed that they expired 11 months ago. Are they still safe to use?


Questions about expiration dates of medications are common in community pharmacies. Most people, including myself, could open their medicine cabinet and find products that are several years past their expiration date. People typically understand that eating food past its "best before date" can make you sick and therefore question what impact expired drugs may have if consumed. This article will provide a bit of information about what expiration dates mean and how expired drugs should be handled.

The manufacturer of a medication will set the expiration date based upon the amount of time that the drug will meet its requirements for safety and potency under proper storage conditions. Studies have found that most medications maintain their potency for at least one to two years after they expire and some have been found to maintain potency for as long as 15 years. As such, the medication in your cabinet may still be okay to use, depending on its use.

It’s important to consider that for some medications, a small drop in potency can make a big difference in whether or not it will still be effective. Consider EpiPen’s for example. These auto-injectors rarely arrive in pharmacies from wholesalers with more than 14-16 months of dating before expiration. Given that they are used to treat a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction, it is imperative that they are kept up to date to ensure maximum potency during an emergency. Similarly, thyroid medications such as Synthroid, which are dosed by the microgram, are subject to large changes in therapeutic efficacy with small changes in potency.

The expiration dates for both prescriptions and over-the-counter medications are printed on the container in which the product is packaged by the manufacturer. It is normally expressed as a month and a year with the understanding that the expiration will occur on the last day of the month indicated. When pharmacies dispense a prescription, the staff will check the expiration date on the package to ensure that the medication has appropriate dating to satisfy the entire supply of the order. 

Another point of potential confusion on prescription vials dispensed to patients is that the expiration date printed on the label often indicates when the written prescription from the prescriber expires as prescriptions in New Brunswick are valid only for one year from the date of writing. As such, the tablets or capsules inside the vial may not expire by manufacturer standards for one or two years after the date indicated on the label. This is done to be sure that the patient has appropriate follow up appointments with their prescriber to be sure that the therapy is still safe and appropriate for them.

Ryan Kennedy (BSc., Doctorate of Pharmacy, MBA) is a pharmacist/owner at Jean Coutu in Saint John. His opinions expressed in this newspaper are published for educational and informational purposes only and are not intended as a diagnosis, treatment or as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Send your questions to


The Ask Your Pharmacist column appears in New Brunswick newspapers for educational and informational purposes only. These opinions are not intended as a diagnosis, treatment or as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question you’d like to see answered, you can send it to