EXPERT Q&A: What to Do When Drugs Expire

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on August 19, 2016
2 min read

You reach into the medicine cabinet for a cold medicine and find an expired over-the-counter remedy or some leftover antibiotics. Now what? You need to know how safety and effectiveness might change for medications that are past their expiration date. John Whyte, MD, MPH, director of professional affairs and stakeholder engagement at the FDA, explains.

Is it safe to take drugs that are past the expiration date?

Generally, there's no guarantee they are safe or will even work. The chemical makeup of drugs can break down over time and they can lose potency and stability. Many people store medications in the bathroom; steam from the shower or changes in temperature can alter how drugs may affect your body. Be sure to note the expiration dates on all medications, OTC and prescription. And note that once you open a medication, the expiration date is 1 year.

Can I flush unused drugs down the toilet?

You don't want to keep unneeded drugs around, especially if you have young children or pets. Some can be especially dangerous or fatal with just one dose. Look for a drug take-back program in your area. If one is not available, check the FDA recommended medicine flush list ... to see if the medication is a potential safety risk. If not, then it's safe to flush it. Otherwise, most other medications can be mixed with kitty litter or coffee grounds and tossed into the trash.

Given concerns about antibiotic resistance, can I stop taking them if I start to feel better?

No. Stopping antibiotics early doesn't help with antibiotic resistance, it contributes to the problem! Anytime bacteria are exposed to an antibiotic, they may replicate and build resistance. Antibiotic resistance is a serious concern, so if your doctor prescribes antibiotics, finish them even if you feel better.