The sniff test can tell you if food has passed its “use by” date. However, when it comes to prescription and over-the-counter drugs, follow this advice from pharmacists.
Brittany Risher,Apr 8, 2021 • 3 min read
Most of us know that person who throws out any food when it's within a few days of the expiration date. Then there are those who rely on the sniff test, knowing that most foods are OK to consume a little past their “best by” dates.
Using your nose may be acceptable when it comes to having a meal, but with medications, a sniff test most often doesn't help. All you have is the expiration date. And, according to a letter published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2016, when the FDA tested 122 different drugs, 88 percent remained stable for an average of 66 months after their printed expiration date.
The caveat? These medications were unopened. Most of us take an over-the-counter (OTC) pill a few times and then leave the open container in our bathrooms. That often humid and bright environment can accelerate the breakdown of medications. That's why pharmacists recommend properly getting rid of expired medications—especially prescriptions—rather than taking them.
“Expired prescriptions should be disposed of. Time can degrade the compounds, making them lose their potency and become less or totally ineffective,” explains Bethanne Brown, PharmD, clinical professor of pharmacy practice at the University of Cincinnati’s James L. Winkle College of Pharmacy. This is particularly true of liquid medications.
Additionally, prescription drugs are not dispensed in their original container. While a pharmacy may include a discard date on the label of your bottle, this date is usually a year from the original date of dispensing, not necessarily the date the medication expires, Brown adds. So any expired prescriptions may be even older than you think, and therefore less effective.
But it's not only that they're less potent, which is especially a problem for anyone managing a chronic health condition. “Many medications are preserved against contaminants,” adds Shawn Spencer, PhD, RPh, Dean, Chief Academic Officer, and professor at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine's School of Pharmacy in Suwanee, Georgia. This is particularly important for things like eye drops or injectables, which are susceptible to bacteria. When drugs like these expire, it may acquire microbes or other compounds that can cause illness, severe allergic reactions, or even mortality, Spencer says.
What about OTC drugs? Although these typically help with less serious illnesses, taking expired OTC medications can pose a risk due to contaminants and decreased efficiency. If a drug is less potent, you might take more medication because you're not experiencing the relief you expect, Spencer says. This, of course, can be harmful.
Whether you're managing a chronic illness or battling an acute health problem, don't take expired medication. With long-term conditions, you risk serious complications if you take ineffective drugs. OTC medications can also pose health problems if taken past expiration.
If you're ever uncertain about a prescription's expiration date, talk to your pharmacist. For OTC drugs, medications expire at the end of the month indicated on the label, Brown explains. So if your decongestant says June 2021, it's good until June 30, 2021.