When Does My Medicine Really Expire?

Here’s a hint: Not when the bottle says it does.


We’ve all been there: In the bathroom at 2 a.m., bleary-eyed with a pounding headache and fumbling through the medicine cabinet in search of the child-proof bottle of over-the-counter pain medication to help take the pain away.

Problem is, that bottle of Advil or Tylenol or — screw it — Midol clearly shows (as far as your crusty, half-open eyes can see at least) that the pills inside expired months ago.

And therein lies the question: Are we believing everything we read these days, drug expiration dates included? Or, alternatively, could taking an expired pill be akin to eating week-old undercooked chicken, i.e., potentially devastating for your health and well-being?

If you’re hoping that I’m going to tell you that, no, downing expired medication is not akin to eating week-old undercooked chicken, well, then, you’re in luck, because it’s not. In fact, odds are, those “old” pills are likely perfectly fine to take. 

(Legal disclaimer: No, we are not directing you to take expired medication. Only a doctor can do that, and not a “doctor” you found in the classified section of your local alt-weekly. A real doctor, please.)

The first thing to understand here is that a drug’s expiration date doesn’t mean the same thing as a food or drink’s expiration date; that is to say, that’s not when the drug starts to “go bad.” In fact, according to the FDA, medication expiration dates only refer to the last date “at which the manufacturer can still guarantee the full potency and safety of the drug.” Furthermore, the expiration dates are only an estimate, based on “stability testing under good manufacturing practices,” as performed by the FDA, and “typically extending only 12 to 60 months from the point of manufacture.”

Which, of course, is a lot of bureaucrat-speak for “we like to cover our butts, so we slapped this arbitrary date on this bottle of ibuprofen so that you don’t get mad at us if this pill doesn’t take your headache away ASAP.” And we know that is what they’re really saying, because studies have shown that the vast majority of medication is perfectly safe to use even 15 years past the expiration date.

So if the stress over your expired anti-stress meds is more stressful than the stress you’re trying to take medication for, don’t be stressed — you’ve got at least a few more years before it’s worth looking sideways at your old, expired pills.