The Risks of Using Expired Medication for Arthritis

An expiration date is put on a product to make us aware that the quality of the product is diminishing. When it comes to arthritis medication, does the expiration date just warn us about the quality or is it unsafe to take expired medication?

Mixed race woman holding medication pills
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty Images

Product expiration dates tell a story. If a product is nearing its expiration date, that particular product has been around for quite some time—and it no longer is at peak quality. The funny thing about expiration dates, some people ignore them and others pay strict attention.

Let's use milk as an example. When you get past the expiration date, there's a good chance you're going to encounter smelly, sour, spoiled milk. The farther you get past the date, the worse it gets. No one likes to waste food, but if you are forced to throw out milk that has gone beyond expiration and has spoiled, so be it. The question about expiration dates becomes more complex when we consider products, such as medication, which have a therapeutic value related to their potency.

That's not to mention the expense involved. Too often, arthritis patients change medications in an effort to better control their symptoms or disease progression. Later, they may end up going back on the drug they had set aside. If the drug sat for an extended period of time, it may have expired. What's more painful than tossing out expensive drugs?

Expiration Date of Medication 

In 1979, a law was passed in the United States that required drug manufacturers to stamp an expiration date on the medications they produced. The date represents the point to which the drug manufacturer can guarantee full potency and safety of the drug. But does "can guarantee full potency and safety" imply that if you take the drug beyond that point it is no good or, perhaps more importantly, unsafe?

Two Schools of Thought 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) conducted a study to test drugs beyond their expiration when the military was faced with tossing and replacing their stock of drugs every couple of years or so. The SLEP (shelf life extension program) has been administered by the Food and Drug Administration for the United States Department of Defense (DOD) for more than 20 years. Based on stability assessment data for 3,005 lots of 122 different drugs, since 1986, 88% of the lots were extended beyond their original expiration date. Of the 2,652 lots extended, only 18% were eventually terminated due to failure. The rest of the lots are either still active (35%) or were abated (47%) by the military.

That has been the basis for one school of thought regarding expired medication. The FDA warned that the study did not mirror the drugs in your own medicine cabinet well enough for a general conclusion to be drawn, though. The FDA advised caution, even though the study concluded that, with a few exceptions like tetracycline, nitroglycerin, and insulin, drugs remain stable for years beyond their expiration.

That's the other school of thought: It's just too risky to take expired medication. According to the FDA, once you are beyond the expiration date, there is no guarantee regarding effectiveness or safety.

The Bottom Line from the FDA

“Expiration dates on medical products are a critical part of determining if the product is safe to use and will work as intended,” says FDA pharmacist Ilisa Bernstein. If your medicine has expired, don't use it.

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By Carol Eustice
Carol Eustice is a writer covering arthritis and chronic illness, who herself has been diagnosed with both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.