How Long Do Prescription Drugs Last?

In a letter to the Archives of Internal Medicine, Lee Cantrell, PharmD of the California Poison Control System in San Diego, discussed his research that showed that many prescription medications and their main ingredients retain their effectiveness and potency 40 years after the expiration date. He and his group specifically looked at aspirin, butalbital, phenacetin, caffeine, phenobarbital, homatropine, chlorpheniramine and acetaminophen. Of the 14 compounds analyzed, 12 retained the generally recognized minimal acceptable potency of 90% of the labeled amount almost 40 years after they had reached the expiration date. Out of the 14 compounds, Aspirin and amphetamine were the only 2 that didn’t retain their effectiveness some 336 months beyond the expiration date.

The authors did not advocate relying on outdated and expired pharmaceuticals. They did see a cost savings in re-defining how long a product will last and remain effective when stored appropriately. This could save consumers thousands of dollars each year if they store their prescription drugs in the correct environment.

I will certainly not advise my patients to use significantly outdated and expired prescriptions. The study shows that, under emergency conditions, these specific outdated compounds still maintain their efficacy.

Their research did not answer questions about the multitude of newer drugs that have been developed over the last 40 years and how long they will last.  Nor did not address the question of whether over time any new chemicals developed within the 40 year old products that may be harmful. The research certainly did raise the question of why we need to look at the traditional expiration dates and reassess the length of time a product still is safe and of value to the consumer.

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