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Prescription Big Pharmaceutical Drug Expiration Dates: What do they mean?

Much of the following information is edited, paraphrased and taken from The Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide (updated November 2003). The sarcasm attached is complements of me, Rick R. Redalen, M.D.

Many people face the dilemma of not knowing when to be able to use an expired medication.

The expiration date on a drug does stand for something. A law was passed in 1979 that requires drug manufacturers to stamp an expiration date on their products. This is the date at which the manufacturer guarantees 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. With a large and expensive stockpile of drugs, the military faced tossing out and replacing its drugs every few years. What they found from the study is 90% of more than 100 drugs, both prescription and over-the-counter, were perfectly good to use even 15 years after the expiration date.

Expiration dates do 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. A rare exception to this may be tetracycline, but the report on this is controversial among researchers. It's true the effectiveness of a drug may decrease over time, but much of the original potency still remains, even a decade after the expiration date. Excluding nitroglycerin, insulin, and liquid antibiotics, most medications are as long-lasting as the ones tested by the military. Placing a medication in a cool place, such as a refrigerator, will help a drug remain potent for many years.

Is the expiration date a marketing ploy by drug manufacturers, to keep you restocking your medicine cabinet and their pockets regularly? You can look at it that way. That is the way I would look at it. The American Pharmaceutical companies do everything to maximize their profits at the expense of the American people and they do not seem to give us a break even during the hardest of economic times. God bless them.

Or you can also look at it this way: The expiration dates are very conservative to ensure you get everything you paid for. I am entirely sure that is what they are looking for. And, really, if a drug manufacturer had to do expiration date testing for longer periods it would slow their ability to bring you new and improved formulations. Now that sounds more like reality doesn’t it?

The next time you face the drug expiration date dilemma, consider what you've learned here. If the expiration date passed a few years ago and it's important that your drug is absolutely 100% effective, you might want to consider buying a new bottle. And if you have any questions about the safety or effectiveness of any drug, ask your pharmacist. He or she is a great resource when it comes to getting more information about your medications.

Fortunately with much of the above information coming from the USFDA, hopefully it is helpful. Our American pharmaceutical companies have a way of performing most studies for their benefit rather than the benefit of the users. Examples of this are the minuscule alterations of a medication whose patent life is running out. It is in this way big pharma is able to extend the patent life of many of their medications. Not only are they able to produce a new medication that their new self-funded studies say is far superior to their parent drug, but it also allows them to charge more. In fact if it is so superior, don’t you wonder why they gave us the parent medication in the first place?

I really think the American people must be getting a far grander medication than the rest of the world because the American pharmaceutical companies charge us so much more. Well, in their defense, it may cost more for packaging in the US and the change in the color of the medication. Do you think that is to confuse us under-educated Americans into thinking it is a different medication? At least I think that is the perception the pharmaceutical companies must have of all of us.

One more point on this. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration constantly warns us about the dangers of buying foreign medications. They may be altered or counterfeit. May I ask you this? Would you rather counterfeit a medication in the United States that sells for $10 a capsule or counterfeit the same medication in Mexico that sells for 10 cents per capsule? The math is simple.

On the other hand and on second thought, maybe the information provided by the studies of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is not that accurate. After all, why should they be any more effective than the rest of our government?

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