Articles

Does Medicine Actually Expire?

December 27, 2019


{♪INTRO♪} There are plenty of reasons to want a fully-stocked
medicine cabinet — but it’s also possible to be too prepared. Like, while that huge bottle of aspirin you
bought on sale ten years ago might have seemed like a great idea, it’s almost definitely expired by now. Expired medicine might seem like a weird concept, because a lot of it doesn’t get moldy or
slimy like old food. Some of it is just powder. But it can expire. And when it does, it’s time to pitch it. Just like with packaged food, drug manufacturers
in the U.S. are required to provide an expiration date
for medications. They’re estimated after seeing how samples
of a drug degrade over short periods of time, or by accelerating the breakdown of the drug’s
active ingredients. Like the dates on food, the dates on medicine
aren’t an indicator of when the drug might hurt you. Instead, they’re a guarantee that it will
work as intended, as long as it’s in the original, sealed
packaging. However, after that date, you can’t be totally
confident that the medicine will work as well. And if you’ve already opened the bottle,
the expiration date no longer applies, and all bets are off. Some of this is because outside factors can
cause compounds in medicine to break down more quickly. Heat, humidity, and sunlight are all big ones. And in some cases, those broken-down compounds
can actually become unsafe. So if you’ve been keeping your aspirin in
the bathroom cabinet all this time, your shower has probably done a number on
it, even if everything looks normal. For many medicines, there’s also the risk
of bacterial growth, especially when it comes to liquid medicine. As soon as you open that container, the contents
are no longer sterile, and quickly become susceptible to contamination
from the environment. So if you take that past the expiration date, there’s a chance you’re drinking
something pretty nasty. Ultimately, taking expired medicine is like spinning a roulette wheel of potential dangers. In the best-case scenario, the drug just won’t
work as well. And in the worst case, you’ll make yourself
more sick. And since it’s really difficult to figure
out what all the risks are… it’s just not worth it. Also, this should go without saying, but this is especially true about drugs for
serious or life-threatening medical conditions Especially because some of those lose their
effectiveness really quickly. For example, the heart medicine nitroglycerine
becomes unstable at high heat and is known to lose its potency fast. These drugs could also seriously hurt you. Some prescription drugs have a very narrow
therapeutic window, meaning the exact dosage is really important. Receiving too much or too little of an active
ingredient could have significant adverse effects. So at the end of the day, it is much safer
just to pitch things. If there aren’t any specific instructions
on the package, the Food & Drug Administration website has
recommendations for how to do that. If you want to learn more, you can click the
link in our description. Thanks for asking! And thanks to all of our patrons on Patreon for supporting this episode, and for asking
such thoughtful questions. If you want to help us keep making more episodes and support free science education
online, you can go to patreon.com/scishow. {♪OUTRO♪}

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