How important are expiration dates on over-the-counter medication?

Question: How important are expiration dates on over-the-counter medication? 

Answer: Expiration dates are a guarantee from the manufacturer. It shows the date the medication will be effective until when stored under ideal conditions.  If you're like many people, medication is stored in the bathroom medicine cabinet. There, it is subject to high temperatures and humidity.  That, in general, shortens the advertised effectiveness of the medication.  It's important to clean out your medicine cabinet regularly because the potency of medication can change. It could become ineffective and delay a person getting appropriate treatment. 

OTC expiration datesBefore throwing the medication in the trash, check with your local police or sheriff to see if they offer medication disposal services. In St. Louis there are dozens of permanent disposal sites.  This is the most environmentally safe way to dispose of both over-the-counter and prescription medication.

In general, gel caps or liquid medications go bad sooner than tablets or capsules. I don't recommend taking any medication after the expiration date, but most over-the-counter medications won't be dangerous a few months after the expiration date.  However, be sure to dispose of all children's medication at the expiration date. Many children's medications are liquid suspensions and bacteria can start to grow.

-Amy Tiemeier, Pharm.D., BCPS, associate professor of pharmacy practice

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