Expiry dates on medicines

nealpatel2by Neal Patel, MRPharmS and RPS Head of Corporate Communications

Are you one of those people who take no notice of expiry dates on food? Do you take a chance and eat it anyway after the expiry date as you’ve had no problems so far?

If you take the same approach with medicines you could find yourself in trouble. Medicines can become harmful or lose their effectiveness after their expiry date, so you may become ill or find you don’t get better as you should. The shelf-life of a medicine is determined by the breakdown of the active ingredients and they will all deteriorate at different rates.

Of course some medicines may be completely fine to use even after their expiry date, but some won’t, and if you’re treating an illness you really want to be sure the medicine is going to work and is safe to use.

So many factors come into play when looking at expiry dates including the make-up of the medicine itself, its chemical properties and the way it’s been stored, that it’s impossible to say ‘if you take this, you won’t be harmed and it will work as it should.’

We can, however, say the same thing with confidence about medicines that are within their expiry date. It’s better, therefore, to have one rule and stick to it: don’t use medicines past their expiry date.

If you’ve had a medicine for a while, check the expiry date next time you come to use it, sometimes medicines may have shorter expiry after they’ve been opened – eye drops for example typically shouldn’t be used 28 days after opening, although sometimes it’s even less. Dispose of medicines by taking them to your pharmacist, who will do this safely for you. Don’t throw them away in a bin or flush them down the toilet as they will end up polluting the environment and water supply.

Check the conditions your medicines have been stored in too, as this can also affect how they work. A warm, damp bathroom cupboard is probably the worst place to keep your medicines. A cool, dry place such as a locked bedroom drawer or a storage box is much better. Remember to keep all medicines out of sight and reach of children.

Some medicines have a shorter shelf life once they are opened. Some will deteriorate more quickly if the storage instructions are not followed – for example, if they aren’t kept in the fridge when they should be.

Whilst it’s tempting to dig out that antibiotic the doctor prescribed for you ages ago, or the half-used bottle of eyedrops which you don’t even remember buying – don’t use them. Dispose of them safely instead.

And if you have any questions about the safety or effectiveness of any medicine, ask your pharmacist. He or she will provide you with all the information you need.