Let’s face it, the cost of medicine and prescription drugs can really add up, and oftentimes we have to throw drugs away because they’re past their expiration date. But according to a new study conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) finds drugs may remain potent a lot longer than expected.
A group of researchers examined eight different prescription medications that contained 15 active ingredients. And though all of the medicines expired between 28 and 40 years ago, the researchers learned the meds not only maintained their level of potency, but also maintained the ability to work in the way they were intended to.
The lead author of the study, Lee Cantrell, says the expiration date on a prescription bottle is more or less a guideline, so patients can know what the minimum amount of time the medicine will be good for -- but that date isn’t necessarily a firm guide to how long the drug will remain effective, he says.
“All [the expiration date] means from the manufacturers’ standpoint is that they’re willing to guarantee the potency and efficacy for the drug for that long," said Cantrell. “It has nothing to do with the actual shelf life.”
The UCSF researchers also found the amount of active ingredient present in the drugs was at least 90 percent of the amount shown on the label, only diminishing by a small amount.
This was the case among 12 of the 14 drug compounds tested. The only active drugs that fell below the 90 percent mark were amphetamines and aspirin, say researchers.
All drugs have to contain between 90 and 110 percent of the active ingredient, which are guidelines set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Lots of waste
Researchers say because pharmacies have to discard prescription drugs right after the expiration date, and consumers have been told to throw medicines away after they expire, a lot of money and effective treatments are being vastly wasted.
It mirrors the same argument one could have against restaurants throwing away day-old food. Although the food isn’t freshly made and it wouldn’t be given to customers, shouldn’t it be given to those that can’t afford a meal? Or should it be wasted simply because it’s passed its expiration date?
In the same way, is it better for consumers to always scrape together the necessary funds to buy fresh prescriptions or should they save their money and just use medicines past their expiration date?
Cantrell says having consumers think they have to discard their medicine simply because it stretched past its recommended date, is not only wasteful but illogical.
“We’re spending billions and billions on medication and medication turnover,” he says. “If a drug has expired, you’ve got to throw it away, it goes into a landfill, and you have to get a new prescription. This could potentially have a significant impact on cost.”
Some believe that drug manufacturers want consumers to keep buying medicine to make more money, and these same manufacturers are also responsible for creating the idea that medicine is ineffective and even harmful after the date on the bottle passes.
Others may say it’s just the manufacturer's way of letting the consumer know how long their medicine is supposed to be its most potent.
In a separate study conducted by both the Department of Defense and the Federal Drug Administration, it was learned that out of 3,005 drugs tested, 2,650 (88 percent) maintained the same level of potency, and upheld their strength for an average of 66 months after the expiration date.
There were also some drugs tested that didn’t lose any potency at all, and remained just as strong as the day they were released from the pharmacy.
Colorado physician Dr. Phil Mohler says using expired prescription drugs is far better than a person going without their medicine because it’s outdated.
And for those who are more cash-strapped than others, using drugs past their expiration date may be their only choice to stay medicated and follow their doctor’s orders.
“In a situation where there are no reasonable alternatives, particularly if the expiration date is within the last few months, [or] years, it may be reasonable to use the expired drug,” said Mohler in a written statement.
“The risk of adverse effects related to the drug being out of date are small and there is a high likelihood that the medication will be effective," he said.
As always, research studies should be taken only as general information. Future studies may come to other conclusions and general findings may not apply in a specific instance. All of which is a way of saying, talk to your doctor before making a decision about using drugs past their expiration date.