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Good Question: Are Medication Expiration Dates Accurate?

By Jason DeRusha, WCCO-TV

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Whether it's the ibuprofen that expired last year or the aspirin that expired five years ago, almost all of us have some expired medications in our cabinet.

"All of our medicine has an expiration date listed," e-mailed Greg Thayer from Maple Grove, who said his wife Mary "insists that I throw expired medicine but is it really bad? What is the purpose of the expiration dates on my Advil?"

"Every drug has to have an expiration date," said Allyson Schlichte, Pharm.D., a pharmacist with Fairview Pharmacy Services.

The Food and Drug Administration started requiring expiration dates on medication in 1979. The initial idea was to require drug companies to do testing to find out if the drugs held their stability over time.

However, the expiration date isn't a magical time when the drug starts to decompose, said Schlichte.

"How they decide that is how long the drug company wants to study the drug to prove that it's potent," she explained. "It depends how much the drug company wants to spend to study it."

So you might see a Tylenol bottle of caplets with a five-year shelf life next to an Advil bottle of caplets with just two-years.

No one knows for sure how much consumers spend on replacing expired drugs, but we do know that drug companies and pharmacists have run campaigns urging us to throw out expired drugs.

"Manufacturers put expiration dates on for marketing, rather than scientific, reasons," Francis Flaherty, a pharmacist at the FDA until his retirement, said to the Wall Street Jounral. "It's not profitable for them to have products on a shelf for 10 years. They want turnover."

"It's definitely a cost-advantage to them to not do long-term studies to really say their products are good for 15 or 20 years," noted Schlichte.

It is a big deal to the U.S. military. The Army stockpiles a billion dollars worth of drugs in case of an attack.

"They were replacing millions a year, so they actually partnered with the FDA," Schlichte said.

FDA researchers ultimately tested more than 100 over-the-counter and prescription drugs. Ninety percent were proven safe and effective far past the expiration date. Some lasted for 10 extra years!

Cipro, a drug used to treat during an anthrax attack, was labeled for a three-year shelf life, but, in fact, it was 100 percent effective at 10 years.

There are differences in the way the military stores drugs as compared to how we do. Most of us keep our drugs in bathrooms, which can become hot and humid. Dark, cool spots are the best places to keep drugs.

"Exposure to heat and humidity is a huge deal. It breaks down the chemical structure or the fillers used to make that tablet a tablet," said Schlichte.

Pharmacists can't ethically or legally advise customers to use drugs past their expiration dates. But Schlichte said, with over-the-counter medications, using them doesn't cause any harm.

"If it still works, it still works, just maybe not as well as something brand new," she said.

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