One of the most common questions that patients tend to ask pharmacists is whether or not it’s safe to take a medication past its expiry date. If so, for how long? And if not, what should you do with it? Dr. Ali Ghahary, a family physician from Vancouver, shares the answers to those questions, along with more important information about medical safety, below.

Unlike foods, which usually go rotten soon after their posted expiration dates and need to be immediately discarded, the expiration date listed on a medication bottle is the final day in which the manufacturer of said medication is able to guarantee the drug’s full potency and safety. Generally, many medications prescribed to you are safe for up to 1 or 2 years, while other medications (such as suspension/liquid formulas) are sometimes only good for up to 14 days after they’ve been mixed. If you want your medication to have its full effect, doctors and pharmacists recommend not taking it past the expiration date. You should also pay close attention to injectable medications, particularly if they appear cloudy or discoloured, as well as creams, which tend to turn yellow in colour once they reach their expiration date or lose potency. If you notice any of those changes with any of your medications then you should avoid using them, says Dr. Ali Ghahary.

While harmful effects rarely occur due to taking an expired medication, there are certain drugs that you should absolutely avoid taking past their expiration date all together, as they can either have a very narrow therapeutic index or lose their potency quite quickly. Some of the medications that should be avoided post-expiry include anticonvulsants, nitroglycerin, warfarin, oral contraceptives, thyroid hormone medications, eye drops, epinephrine and insulin.

When it comes to determining whether or not you should take an expired medication, there are certain factors you should consider, such as the dosage and formulation, packaging, the lengthy of time in which you’ve had the medication in your possession, the medication’s appearance as mentioned above, and storage conditions – for example, medications that have been unopened tend to retain their effectiveness longer than medications that have been opened. Factors that can have a negative impact on the stability of medication include whether they are in direct sunlight, extreme hot or cold temperatures, moisture, and oxygen. Proper storage is essential when it comes to the preservation of medications.

So, can you take an expired medication or not? Dr. Ali Ghahary says that if it is a medication you depend on under life or death circumstances and require their full potency, the safe answer is no – and as the old adage goes, it’s always better to be safe than sorry – and when in doubt, throw it out. Dr. Ali Ghahary also recommends patients clean out their medicine cabinets (or wherever you store your medications) at least once a year. That way you’re not only getting rid of any outdated medication, but you’re also making more space. If you happen to have a lot of expired medication but don’t know what to do with it, simply take it to your local pharmacy and they will safely discard it for you.