Many drugs are just fine years after they 'expire,' study finds

October 9, 2012 by Karen Kaplan

Chances are, your medicine cabinet contains some pills that are past their expiration date. You might even have some pain relievers, some cough syrup or some sleeping pills that were purchased back when Richard Nixon was in the White House. But you can't seem to throw them away because you suspect they might still be OK to take.

If you've wondered whether medicines really do need to be tossed after their expiration date, you've got some company at the California Poison Control System, the University of California, San Francisco, and UC Irvine. Researchers from those institutions decided to satisfy their curiosity by testing the effectiveness of eight drugs that had been sitting around, unopened, in pharmacies for years after they had supposedly gone bad.

These drugs were not just a few years past their prime, these medications were a full 28 to 40 years past their official expiration dates.

The eight drugs contained a total of 15 . The researchers couldn't find a standard test for one of them (homatropine), so they focused their analysis on the other 14.

The tablets and capsules were dissolved and subjected to chemical analysis using a . That revealed how much of the active ingredients remained in the pills.

Out of the 14 active ingredients, 12 were still at high enough concentration - 90 percent of the amount stated on the label - to qualify as having "acceptable potency," the researchers found. These included:

-Acetaminophen (the in Tylenol)

-Codeine (an opiate that treats pain and coughs)

-Hydrocodone (an opiate used to treat moderate to severe pain)

-Phenacetin (an analgesic that's not used much anymore)

-Caffeine (a stimulant)

-Chlorpheniramine (an used to treat colds and allergies)

-Pentobarbital (a short-acting barbiturate)

-Butalbital (a barbiturate that lasts for an intermediate period of time)

-Secobarbital (a barbituate used to treat insomnia)

-Phenobarbital (a barbiturate that controls seizures and relieves anxiety)

-Meprobamate (a tranquilizer to treat anxiety)

-Methaqualone (a sedative and muscle relaxant known by the brand name Quaaludes)

The only active ingredients that missed that cutoff were aspirin and the stimulant amphetamine.

The expiration date on a drug is usually one to five years after it was manufactured. But those dates are often set arbitrarily, since the Food and Drug Administration doesn't require pharmaceutical makers to test how long the active ingredients will last, the researchers wrote.

They noted that the Shelf-Life Extension Program allows drugs in federal stockpiles to be retained for up to 278 months after their stated expiration date if tests show they are still potent. But some of the ingredients tested in this study remained good for 480 months - so far.

The research team's obvious conclusion? "Our results support the effectiveness of broadly extending expiration dates for many drugs," they wrote.

"The most important implication of our study involves the potential cost savings resulting from lengthier product expiration dating," they added. "Given that Americans currently spend more than $300 billion annually on prescription medications, extending drug expiration dates could yield enormous health care expenditure savings."

The analysis was published online Monday by Archives of Internal Medicine.

Explore further: FDA: Novartis recall may also affect painkillers

Related Stories

FDA: Novartis recall may also affect painkillers

January 9, 2012
(AP) -- The Food and Drug Administration is warning patients about a potential mix-up between powerful prescription pain drugs and common over-the-counter medications like Excedrin and Gas-X made at a Novartis manufacturing ...

FDA warns of fake version of ADHD drug Adderall

May 30, 2012
(HealthDay) -- A counterfeit version of the attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder drug Adderall, sold online, contains the wrong active ingredients, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Simple new test to combat counterfeit drug problem in developing countries

August 19, 2012
In a thrust against the major problem of counterfeit medicines sold in developing countries, which causes thousands of illnesses and deaths annually, scientists today described development of a simple, paper-strip test that ...

Public confused about ingredients in pain relievers

May 3, 2011
People take billions of doses of over-the-counter pain relievers like Tylenol every year, but many do not pay attention to the active ingredients they contain, such as acetaminophen, according to a new Northwestern Medicine ...

Johnson & Johnson cuts maximum Tylenol dose to prevent overdoses

July 28, 2011
(AP) -- Johnson & Johnson said Thursday that it's reducing the maximum daily dose of its Extra Strength Tylenol pain reliever to lower risk of accidental overdose from acetaminophen, its active ingredient and the top cause ...

Recommended for you

Data revealed under FOI shows benefits of multiple sclerosis drug currently blocked by regulators

August 17, 2017
A drug that is blocked by the EU regulatory system has now been found to improve the quality of life of people with multiple sclerosis (MS), according to a study by Queen Mary University of London (QMUL).

Opioids overused in migraine treatment, regardless of race, study finds

August 17, 2017
African-Americans are more likely to experience debilitating migraine headaches than whites, but a new study probing the issue found no evidence of racial disparities in treatment practices.

Finding better ways to reduce serious drug side effects

August 14, 2017
Many of the medicines we depend on to treat disease—and even to save our lives—pose potentially serious risks along with their benefits. Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that about ...

Ultrasound-triggered liposomes for on-demand, local anesthesia

August 10, 2017
Researchers at Boston Children's Hospital have found a new way to non-invasively relieve pain at local sites in the body; such systems could one day improve pain management by replacing addictive opioids and short-lasting ...

Independent pharmacies and online coupons help patients save money on drugs

August 8, 2017
Uninsured patients or those with limited prescription drug coverage can save significant money by buying their drugs at independent pharmacies instead of big box, grocery or chain drug stores and by using discount coupons, ...

New study generates more accurate estimates of state opioid and heroin fatalities

August 7, 2017
Although opioid and heroin deaths have been rising dramatically in the U.S., the magnitude of the epidemic varies from state to state, as does the relative proportion of opioid vs heroin poisonings. Further complicating the ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.