Is it really dangerous to swallow a pill past its prime? A doctor weighs in.

Anthea Levi
May 04, 2018

Picture this: Your head is killing you, so you open your medicine cabinet in hopes of finding some Advil. It’s there! But wait. It expired a year ago. Now what?

It’s a predicament most of us have faced, so it begs the question: What do expiration dates on over-the-counter and prescription drugs really mean, and is it ever safe to take expired medication? After all, who decided that your go-to migraine relief can’t be consumed after, say, April 23, 2020?   

“By law, drug manufacturers are required to stamp an expiration date on their products,” says Margarita Rohr, MD, of New York University Langone Joan H. Tisch Center for Women's Health. “This date represents the date at which the manufacturer can still guarantee full potency and safety of the medication.”

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According to Dr. Rohr, there’s actually little scientific evidence that expired medications can be toxic or make you sick the way rotten food can. “The drug is likely to lose some potency after the expiration date, but it is not clear how much potency is lost over a certain period of time past expiration dates.”

Just beware: Certain meds’ expiration dates may matter more than others. “Insulin and nitroglycerin [which is used to treat chest pain] are known to very quickly lose their potency and therefore should not be used past expiration dates,” notes Dr. Rohr. Other drugs that shouldn’t be consumed after their use-by date include liquid antibiotics, which aren’t as stable as their pill counterparts, and some injectables. Norepinephrine (used to treat shock and low blood pressure), for example, should be discarded if you notice discoloration, adds Dr. Rohr.

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As for how to decide when to swallow a drug that could potentially be past its prime, Dr. Rohr recommends considering why the medication is being taken in the first place. “If you are taking a blood thinner like warfarin to prevent blood clots or an anti-seizure medication like dilantin or phenobarbital, it would be important to make sure the medication has full potency to help prevent detrimental effects of medication failure,” she says. 

So back to that Advil you're desperate to take to fight off your head pain—it's worth a shot. If you notice that it doesn't have the same effect as usual or it has no effect at all on your skull throbber, consider hightailing it to the drugstore and picking up a new, unexpired stash.