You’ve had a pounding headache all day. You finally give in and decide to take a painkiller, but when you look in your medicine cabinet you notice that the paracetamol has expired…six months ago! It’s 9:30 at night and all the local pharmacies are closing. A headache or no headache, you’re not about to hike over to the other side of town to find a drug store that’s still open. What should you do?
What you should know before you decide what to do
Improper storage of medicines with exposure to extreme temperatures, light, moisture, and oxygen can reduce how powerful and safe the drug will be.
Research demonstrates that under very strict storage conditions, 88% of certain drugs remain potent for one to five years after their expiration date. A cool, airtight, dry and dark place is the best storage for medicines.
Two things happen when you don’t store drugs properly or when they have expired –
- Change in chemical property
- Weakening in strength
Why is this important?
The most critical things to consider for any drug are efficacy and safety. Will the drug treat the condition for which you are using it? Is it safe to take?
In much of Sub-Saharan Africa, imported drugs are exposed to high temperatures and humidity from the moment they arrive. Locally manufactured medicines fare no better. Maintenance of strict storage conditions is lax due to inadequate governmental regulation and enforcement.
By the time a drug hits the shelf in your local pharmacy, it’s potency and safety may already be in question. If the drug is expired, it’s most likely to be weak and unsafe.
How you store a drug after you buy it also plays a part in its safety and strength.
Are expired drugs safe to use?
Let’s return to the question at the beginning of the blog – should you take the expired medication? You know that fake drugs are not safe to take. The bottom line is that expired medicines are not safe either!
Using expired medications has many undesirable effects:
- Treatment failures – leading to longer days out of work or school
- Antibiotic resistance
- Worsening of a chronic health condition
- Organ damage
If you use a drug on which your life depends (e.g. insulin or asthma medicine) its potency or strength should be 100%, and its safety completely reliable. Even if you take a drug like paracetamol on which you don’t depend for life, it should still be safe.
Precautions you can take
- Use a reputable pharmacy
- Always check the expiration date to be certain it has not been altered
- Make sure there’s no tampering evident in the packaging
- Store your medicines in a cool, airtight, dry and dark place
- Throw away expired drugs safely so that they can’t pose a danger to someone else
Using an expired medicine is not worth the risk – better to be safe than dead.