The significance of expiry dates on medicine and food.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, DC. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, DC. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

In the Medical Post (November 25, 2003) Dr. Maria Hugi wrote a column titled, “Drugs still effective long past their expiry dates.” Dr. Hugi is an emergency physician in Vancouver. She was using the information obtained from an article in the Medical Letter (October 28, 2002).

The Medical Letter article says drugs stored without exposure to humidity (stored at a dry room temperature) probably retain 90 per cent efficacy five years after the expiration date if not much longer.

What does U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) web site say?

It says expiration date matters. If your medicine has expired, it may not provide the treatment you need. Expiration dates help determine if medicine is safe to use and will work as intended.

According to Wikipedia, shelf life is defined as the length of time that a commodity may be stored without becoming unfit for use, consumption, or sale. Most expiration dates are used as guidelines based on normal and expected handling and exposure to temperature.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency produces a Guide to Food Labelling and Advertising that sets out a “Durable Life Date”. The authority for producing the guide comes from the Food and Drugs Act. The guide sets out what items must be labelled and the format of the date.

Harvard Health Publications (HHP) asks, “Drug Expiration Dates – Do They Mean Anything?”

Since a law was passed in the U.S. in 1979, drug manufacturers are required to stamp an expiration date on their products. This is the date at which the manufacturer can still guarantee the full potency and safety of the drug.

Most of what is known about drug expiration dates comes from a study conducted by the Food and Drug Administration at the request of the military.

What they found from the study is 90 per cent of more than 100 drugs, both prescription and over-the-counter, were perfectly good to use even 15 years after the expiration date.

So the expiration date does not really indicate a point at which the medication is no longer effective or has become unsafe to use. Medical authorities state expired drugs are safe to take, even those that expired years ago, says the article in the Harvard Health Publications (HHP).

What are the exceptions to the rule?

Excluding nitroglycerin, insulin, and liquid antibiotics, most medications are as long lasting as the ones tested by the military. Place medication in a cool place, such as a refrigerator, will help a drug remain potent for many years, says HHP.

So the expiration date doesn’t really indicate a point at which the medication is no longer effective or has become unsafe to use. There is relatively little scientific data about out-dated medications. What you see on the drug and food packages is a guideline. Use the guideline smartly. If in doubt talk to your pharmacist or food store.

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