Medicine cabinet shelf with different types of medication, e-Surgery

Medication Spring Clean!

When was the last time you sorted out that miscellaneous medicine cupboard/cabinet/bag/box?

Let’s be honest, it’s a once in a blue moon (if ever) occasion. When we DO get around to sorting through those slightly crushed hay fever tablets and squashed soluble paracetamol we often think: ‘Maybe this will come in handy later?’ and proceed to put the meds back in the exact place that we found them for another few years.

Sadly the majority of medication has a shelf life, so when sorting through we shouldn’t be asking ‘Will I need this in the future?’. We should instead be asking ‘Will this be safe to use in the future?’.

Expired or out of date medication can be ineffective and dangerous, which is why you should always keep the original box that the medication came in. Expiry dates may also be shown after the phrase expiry date, expires, exp, exp date, use by or use before [1]. Expiry dates are put on by the manufacturer who supplies the medication as well as by the pharmacist/prescriber who prescribes it. Even if your medication is within date but is broken, damaged or looks/smells/feels different to normal you should inform your pharmacist.

White, clean bathroom sink with mirror cabinet above, the dangers of expired medication, e-Surgery

Does Expiration Date Really Matter?

When it comes to food or drink the rules around expiration dates differ slightly, as many products will also have a ‘best before’ date [2]. This is to show when the food will be at its best but is generally still safe to eat after this point. When it comes to ‘best before’ dates we can use our common sense. A bag of potatoes that is past its best before date but looks and smells perfectly fine? Let’s be honest, it’s most likely fine. 

But when it comes to medication we take a much bigger risk by consuming it once it has expired. After time the chemical composition of the tablet can change causing it to be ineffective and there is no guarantee that the medication will be safe.

How are Medication Expiration Dates Worked Out?

Expiration dates are worked out by pharmaceutical manufacturers and are required by law. The manufacturer will test the drug rigorously before it is available to the public and part of these tests work out durability and expiry. The expiration date is the final day that the manufacturer guarantees the full potency and safety of a medication [3].

Science lab desk with scientific equipment, the dangers of expired medication, e-Surgery

The Dangers of Expired Medication

When certain medications are taken after their expiry date they can cause adverse effects. For example expired tetracycline can cause kidney damage known as “Fanconi Syndrome” [4] (although it’s worth noting this study has since come under some scientific scrutiny.)

Drugs that exist in a suspension or require refrigeration tend to lose their potency much faster than medications that come in a tablet or capsule form. This can cause devastating effects, particularly for those taking antibiotics such as amoxicillin-suspension, as it will mean the bacterial infection will continue to spread and cause harm.

Solutions such as eye drops that are used past their expiry date can even begin to grow mould or bacteria in them leading to nasty consequences such as eye infections.

An additional issue that you may not consider when it comes to expired medication is addiction. According to the FDA, ‘Studies show that many abused prescription drugs are obtained from family and friends, including from the home medicine cabinet’ [5]. It is important to consider the people around you as well as yourself when considering what to keep in your medicine cabinet, especially if it is old medication that you might not necessarily notice going missing.

How Can I Find Out if my Medication is Expired?

You will be able to tell from the date on the packaging if the medication, either from the manufacturer or on a prescription label from your pharmacist. If you have any questions or concerns about expired medication you can use our free Ask a Pharmacist service.


  1. Why Do Medicines Have Expiry Dates | NHS
  2. Food Labelling Terms | NHS
  3. Drug Expiration Dates |
  4. Can medications become harmful | Nursing 2020
  5. Don’t be tempted use expired medicines | FDA

Further Reading

  1. Don’t Be Tempted to Use Expired Medicines | US Food and Drug Administration
  2. Why do medicines have expiry dates? | FDA
  3. Drug Expiration Dates — Do They Mean Anything? | Harvard Health Publishing