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How Old Is Too Old for Medicines?

September 15, 1997|MARTIN MILLER

It's September 1997, and you've got a monster headache. But according to your aspirin bottle, its contents expired in December 1996.

Will the expired pills still do in the headache? Or worse, will they do you in?

On both counts, probably not, say medical experts.

Drugs like headache relievers merely become less potent--not dangerous--over time. The same goes for the majority of over-the-counter medications--they are not very likely to harm you even if taken after their expiration dates.

"For minor medications like Tylenol, where the situation doesn't involve a life-threatening or life-saving situation, it's probably not a big deal" to take expired medication, says Ed Arriola, coordinator of UCLA's Drug Information Center. "But it's a personal choice the consumer has to make."

It's a choice faced by everyone from the 2 a.m. headache victim to the chronic-allergy sufferer. You don't want to take an ineffective product, but you don't want to toss out perfectly good medicine, including the more costly prescription drugs.

"The general rule of thumb on, really, all prescribed drugs is, if you've had it for six months or longer and you can't find out the correct expiration date, toss it out," says Dr. Susan Stangl, director of Urgent Care at the UCLA Family Health Center.

And if your medication ever looks different from when you bought it (for instance, it's discolored, powdery or congealed), don't take it.

In extremely rare cases, the use of expired prescription drugs has led to seizures and even death. The commonly prescribed antibiotic tetracycline, for example, can degrade into a poison over time.

Taking expired antibiotics may also aggravate rather than destroy an infection. Likening it to the phrase "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger," doctors explain that the invading bacteria may only become more resistant to antibiotics if inferior dosages are taken.

"The bacteria builds up its defenses and that could lead to a super-infection, so to speak," Arriola says.

To ensure that over-the-counter and prescription medications retain their potency at least until their expiration date, experts urge consumers to properly store drugs. Premature aging of medications contributes to the whopping $49-billion total that Americans spend annually on nearly 2 billion prescriptions.

Since most homes are equipped with a "medicine cabinet," it's easy to get the wrong idea about where to keep drugs. In fact, the traditional medicine cabinet may accelerate the rate at which drugs lose their potency.

"It's really one of the worst places to store medicine," Stangl says. "The excessive moisture and heat in bathrooms really age the drugs."

Instead, experts recommend that medications be placed away from light sources in a cool, dry place, such as a closet or kitchen cabinet.

"It's amazing what some people will do [with medications]," Stangl says. "And people should never, ever share a neighbor's prescription, and they should never take a leftover prescription."

If you're uncertain about a medication's age or effectiveness, call your physician or pharmacist.

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