Have you ever taken some medicine and then seen that it’s passed it’s expiration date? It’s happened to most people – whether it be the occasional painkiller or regular medication that you bought a few too many months ago.

So what do the expiration dates on medication really mean? Is it like food, where it’s spoiled past the date? Will it make you ill? Or does it mean that it’s just become less effective? And the ultimate question – can you still take it anyway?

The expiration date on medication is actually very important. A lof of scientific research has gone into finding that date, which shows how long the drug’s “potency” lasts.

What potency is the amount or “dose” that is in the medication for it to have a certain effect. What the manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies do is expose the medication to different environments, different temperatures and humidity levels and calculate how much it has “degraded”.

The effects of a little degradation, 1% or so, can go unnoticed. But the general rule that is followed is that if there is around 10% degradation, the drug is seen as being ineffective or at “the end of its useful life”.

So if months or years have passed, chances are that the drug won’t cause an damage but will also not do you any good. Essentially, it will do nothing. Which defeats the purpose of having the drug in the first place.

The potency of a drug is really important, if a person is fighting an infection with antibiotics then it is vital that they are taking the correct dosage to prevent the infection from turning into something more serious.

The other serious risk is antibiotic resistance. If the medication has degraded too much, and is not as efficient as necessary to kill the bacteria, then that certain bacteria may be able to mutate and become resistant to it.

Globally, approximately 700,000 people die every year from drug resistant bacteria. And The World Health Organisation have predicted that by 2050, this figure could potentially rise to 10 million. So it’s important that bacterial infection do not become resistant.

What Best for You and Your Medication

The best thing to do with medication that you know is past it’s expiration date is to simply not to take it. To avoid this happening, always check the date on the packaging of all medication before you use it.

And when you go to buy medication, check with the pharmacist how long it has before it expires. With over the counter medication, avoid buying it in bulk as you may not use it all before it expires.

That being said, it’s not just time that degrades the active ingredients and there are ways for newer medication to be less effective. There are other factors that can speed up degradation and affect potency.

Heat and humidity play a role in this, so avoid keeping medication in your bathroom medicine cabinet or in a hot car. When storing medication, make sure it’s in a dry cool place.

Again, it’s always important to check the labels on the packaging, some medications need to be refrigerated while others need to be protected and kept away from light.

Liquid medication should also be handled with some care, as they aren’t as preserved as capsules and tablets. They’re also more susceptible to contamination.

Other than expiry dates, there are other signs to be aware of; change in colour, smell or consistency of a drug should always be checked.

Your health, and the health of your loved ones, are some of the most important things that should be taken care of. With medicine that are old or questionable, the best solution is: “if in doubt, throw it out”. It’s simply not worth the risk.

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