Save the Date
Heat, humidity, and direct light are the three enemies of drug potency. So where is one of the worst places to store drugs? In the medicine cabinet, of course! (This is also the case for dietary supplements.)
Your bathroom medicine cabinet probably doesn’t get much direct light, but the fluctuation of bathroom heat and humidity is extreme and frequent enough to degrade the potency of whatever drugs or supplements might be stored there.
A linen closet or bedroom drawers are better locations for drug storage. In fact, when kept away from heat, humidity, and direct light, your medications and supplements might be usable long after their expiration dates.
Before you toss
WBAL, a local TV station here in Baltimore, recently presented an investigation into drug expiration dates. An interview with Frank Palumbo of the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy revealed that Maryland and many other states require the expiration date of any filled prescription to be set at one year after the date the drug is dispensed at the pharmacy, even if the drug’s actual expiration date is years away!
The WBAL report examined ten prescriptions filled at a Baltimore pharmacy. One was dispensed from a container that displayed an expiration date less than one year off, and the pharmacist listed that date on the prescription. The other nine medications had expiration dates that ranged from 2008 to 2010, but to conform to state law, each had to be listed with a 2007 date.
For many medications this isn’t an issue. But for drugs that are considered “seasonal” (such as allergy treatments), or drugs that are used only when symptoms occur, the inaccurate expiration date might prompt consumers to throw away drugs that may be fully potent for additional months or even years.
If you fill a prescription that you believe you might not finish within a year, you could ask your pharmacist to check the actual expiration date listed on the bottle he used to dispense the medication. State law or pharmacy policy may prohibit him from giving you the answer, but it’s worth a try.
Days are numbered
In 1979 the FDA issued guidelines for expiration dates to be applied to all prescription and over-the-counter drugs. But the regulatory mandate to drug companies was not to establish exactly how long a drug would be potent and safe, but rather to set an arbitrary date, and then do the testing necessary to guarantee potency and safety until that date.
Since the beginning of the expiration date requirement, scientists for both the FDA and drug companies have generally agreed that the testing standards are rigorous enough that most drugs are safe and potent well beyond their established expiration dates.
In the mid-90s, the U.S. military spent almost $4 million to test certain drugs to determine realistic expiration dates. According to a Wall Street Journal report, extending the use of many drugs past their listed dates saved the military more than $260 million.
But not all drugs are so durable.
A former FDA expiration-date compliance chief named Joel Davis told the Wall Street Journal that nitroglycerin, insulin, and some liquid antibiotics are more perishable and should be used or discarded before their listed expiration date. The WBAL report noted the same about these types of drugs (singling out the antibiotic Tetracycline as one that must be discarded after its expiration date), and added blood pressure medications to that list.
More common drugs like aspirin are probably good for as much as two years past the expiration date. Bayer has tested aspirin as old as four years and found it to be just as effective as the day it was manufactured.
But it all comes back to storage. When drugs or dietary supplements are exposed to heat, humidity, and direct light, their numbered days drop off quickly.