It is 2 a.m. and that cough and stuffy nose you have been battling is still keeping you up. You reach for the nighttime cold relief medicine only to find it expired a few months ago. If you take a dose to ease your symptoms, will you be putting yourself at risk?
This situation is a relatively common occurrence. Many medicine cabinets are stocked with over-the-counter drugs as well as prescription medications that may be past their expiration dates. It is a good idea to routinely discard expired medicines, but if you happen to take a drug that has passed its expiration date, you will most likely suffer no ill effects.
According to the Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide, the expiration date on a medicine is not the dates when a drug becomes hazardous. Rather, it marks the period of time after which a drug company can no longer guarantee the efficacy of the medication.
Expiration dates also may be a marketing ploy. Francis Flaherty, a retired FDA pharmacist, has said drug manufacturers put expiration dates on products for marketing purposes rather than scientific reasons. It doesn't make financial sense to a company to have products on the shelves for years. Therefore, most drug manufacturers will not do long-term testing on products to confirm if they will be effective 10 to 15 years after manufacture.
The U.S. military has conducted their own studies with the help of the FDA. FDA researchers tested more than 100 over-the-counter and prescription drugs. Around 90 percent were proven to still be effective long past the expiration date -- some for more than 10 years. Drugs that are stored in cool, dark places have a better chance of lasting because the fillers used in the product will not separate or start to break down as they might in a warm, humid environment. Storing medicines in the refrigerator can prolong their shelf life.