Ask Your Pharmacist

April 21, 2022
Q:

Is it okay to use my medications beyond expiry date?

A:

This may seem like a simple question, but there are many factors to consider. Foremost, a prescriber orders a prescription for a patient for a specific reason, and with specific expectations of what that medication will do for an individual at that time. If the period of time has passed, should these signs and symptoms persist, recur, or change, the best choice is to have the medical condition re-evaluated. You may inadvertently be treating with what you think is the correct medication, but in fact the situation has changed. This could lead you to think you are being treated when you are actually not, and this poses a risk to your health.

Your medication is a chemical and the quality of this chemical and its stability are affected by many factors in our environment: temperature, humidity, light, moisture, exposure to air, bacteria, and many others. As time passes, these factors degrade the composition of the active chemical ingredients and the inactive ingredients or “fillers” that make up the capsule, tablet, or liquid that you ingest.

Manufacturing and distribution of medications in Canada is regulated by Health Canada. An expiration of a medication dosage form represents the last date the drug is shown to maintain its labelled potency, purity, and physical characteristics. The safest thing to do is to take your medication for the prescribed duration of therapy. If there happens to be medication remaining after this period of time, it is important to properly dispose of them. 

Similar factors come into play when we consider over-the-counter products and their expiration date. Generally, these products are not unsafe past the expiration date. However, their effectiveness may begin to wane with time and storage conditions.

Proper storage of your medications is important to make sure they remain safe and effective up to their expiry date. It is safest for medication to be stored in the original container it is dispensed or in blister packages prepared under controlled conditions at your pharmacy.  Medications can be degraded when exposed to air, moisture, humidity, and temperature changes. For this reason, storing your medications in the bathroom is not the best choice.  Some medications have specific storage requirements and your pharmacy team will explain these requirements at the time of prescription pickup. For example, some medications must be protected from light, while others require refrigeration. Failure to keep medications under the storage conditions recommended may lead to the medications not being as effective as they could be, even though they have not yet expired. For most medications, it is a good choice to store them in a cool, dry place such as a kitchen cabinet. Even if your prescription bottles are child proof, it is safest to keep medications stored in an area out of the reach of children and pets.

Take care not to keep your medications in a cupboard close to the stove or fridge where they may be exposed to variations in temperature. Placing your medication vials on the window ledge is also not a good idea.

The safest way to dispose of any unused medications is to return them in their original containers to the pharmacy where you purchased them. Do not throw them in the regular garbage or flush them down the toilet. Your pharmacy team will de-identify your medications to protect your personal health information. Medications are stored in a safe location in the pharmacy and later sent for incineration. In this way, there is minimal impact on soil and water contamination, your personal health information is protected, and the risk of your medication accidently falling into the hands of a child, for example, is mitigated.

Be certain to dispose of needles, syringes, other sharps and biohazardous materials in a sharps’ container. This is to protect yourself and your pharmacy team when you return these used products to the pharmacy. Some people improvise and dispose of sharps in empty milk containers and detergent bottles. This is an unsafe practice because these containers are not labelled as such and may not be treated the same way a sharps container would be. This leaves the unsuspecting handler open to a needle stick injury and all the potential health consequences that go along with that.

Your pharmacist is happy to answer questions about medication expiry dates and proper storage.

Dr. Kevin Duplisea (PharmD BSc. Pharm, BSc. ACPR) is a pharmacist at Sharp’s Corner Drugstore in Sussex, New Brunswick. 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 AskYourNBPharmacist@gmail.com.