The truth about expired medicine

I recently did a massive purge of my bathroom cabinets and drawers. It was one of those epic cleansing rituals that leaves you with five bags of garbage and a smug, satisfied feeling of accomplishment.

My only conundrum?

One of those garbage bags is full to the brim of expired medications. Headache tables, antibiotics, steroid creams, sleeping tablets: they’re all in there, anything from three months to three years past their due date.


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So what do I do with them?

I’ve always taken a pretty hardline stance when it comes to out of date medication: if it’s even one month past the expiration date, I won’t take it, because I’ve always been worried it could make me sick.

But just this morning, I discovered that medicine expiry dates may be something of a myth!

Manufacturers often whack them on the box because it’s not in their best interests, financially, to test whether their products remain effective for longer periods. After all, they’d much prefer you bin the headache tablets that have been in the back of your medicine cabinet for two years, and buy brand new ones.

However sometimes, the medications can be perfectly fine for years beyond their expiration date.

Lee Cantrell, who helps run the California Poison Control System in the United States, recently tested a cache of medications that were 30 to 40 years past their expiration date – and the results were surprisingly positive!

Out of 14 compounds, 12 were still as potent as they were when they were manufactured, some at almost 100 percent of their labelled concentrations. “Lo and behold,” Cantrell says, “the active ingredients are pretty darn stable.”

In other words: half of my garbage bag full of ‘best before meds’ are probably just as effective at alleviating a headache or boosting my iron levels as they ever were.

Obviously there are some medicines that are more time sensitive, so anyone considering popping a Panadol after its expiration date should check with their doctor before doing so.

I’ve readied my collective for the rubbish now, so I’ll continue on with my plans to discard them. Which leads me to my conundrum: What does one do with expired meds? Throw in the wheelie bin with everything else?

Nope, it turns out the better option is to return them to you local pharmacy.

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