Got Expired Drugs?

Expired medications may be dangerous when taken, disposed of improperly, FDA says

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Jennifer Gershman, PharmD, CPh

Most people check the expiration date on their milk carton before taking a big gulp. But what about the expiration dates found in their medicine cabinet?

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a statement this week warning consumers of the dangers tied to taking and improperly disposing of expired medications. To avoid these dangers, the FDA encourages consumers to take stock of any expired drugs and dispose of them thoughtfully.

Why Dispose of Expired Medications?

Although some people may think holding on to expired medications is harmless or even smart thinking, the FDA stresses that keeping drugs past their expiration dates can be dangerous for both patients and their communities.

“Certain dosage forms such as liquids, exposure to light, as well as temperature and humidity can all play a factor in the stability of medication,” said Tucker D. Simmons, PharmD, of Beauregard Drugs in Opelika, AL, in an interview with RxWiki News.

Manufacturers only test a drug's stability through its expiration date, Dr. Simmons said. That means some medications meant to treat acute or even life-threatening conditions could lose their potency and not work past their expiration dates.

People in the US also abuse prescription drugs at alarming rates, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). And many of those abused drugs, which often result in accidental overdose, are obtained from the medicine cabinets of family and friends.

What's the Best Way to Dispose of Expired Drugs?

The FDA and DEA agree that the ideal way to dispose of expired drugs is to deliver them to a take-back program, such as the yearly National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day coordinated by the DEA. If one of these programs is not available, there are also others ways to safely dispose of expired drugs.

“For those who cannot make it or can't wait till the next event, I recommend placing the medication in cat litter or used coffee grounds,” Dr. Simmons said.

The FDA recommends that, when using this method, consumers should mix the drug with the litter or dirt then place the mixture in a sealable bag in the trash. The FDA also recommends scratching out the information on the empty bottle’s label before throwing it away.

Although some may advocate flushing expired drugs down the toilet, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says medications are an emerging contaminant in our waterways and could negatively affect aquatic life. The FDA's opinion differs from the EPA on this matter, citing that certain medications should be flushed due to the risk of possible ingestion by children and the potential for abuse. A full list of these medications can be found on the FDA's website.

How Can Premature Expiration Be Avoided?

The manner in which medications are stored is extremely important to the drugs retaining their potency. Most drugs have storage recommendations on their labels, which should be followed to ensure they remain safe. According to the FDA, most medications should be stored in a cool, dry place away from sunlight, such as a dresser drawer, closet shelf or kitchen cabinet.

Even when unexpired drugs are stored in a safe manner, Dr. Simmons recommends examining their appearance before taking them. If pills are chipped or soft, if liquid in capsules stay separated after shaking or if injectable drugs appear solid, the drugs should be disposed of.

Review Date: 
January 15, 2016