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Study: Expiration dates have nothing to do with shelf life of drugs

I'm one of those people who regularly goes through the medicine cabinet looking for expired medications to toss out. But a new study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine may get me thinking, "Not so fast!"

Researchers from the University of California-San Francisco analyzed eight prescription drugs that were between 28 and 40 years beyond the expiration date indicated on the bottle and found that most of the medications retained their potency. reports:

Overall, the eight drugs included 14 different active ingredients, including aspirin, codeine and hydrocodone. In 86% of cases, the study found, the amount of active ingredient present in the drugs was at least 90% of the amount indicated on the label.

That falls within the range deemed acceptable by the Food and Drug Administration. The agency allows "reasonable variation" in the strength of any given batch of prescription drugs, generally requiring that drugs contain between 90% and 110% of the stated active ingredient.

The study only found that two ingredients - aspirin and amphetamine - consistently fell below the 90% threshold.

Given drug shortages and rising health care costs, the authors suggest in the paper that "the current practices of drug expiration dating be reconsidered." Lead author Lee Cantrell, PharmD, told writer Amanda Gardner, "We're spending billions and billions on medications and medication turnover. If a drug has expired, you've got to throw it away, it goes into a landfill, and you have to get a new prescription. This could potentially have a significant impact on cost."

Although the study suggests that expiration dates don't equate to shelf life, Gardner cautions that the findings "don't mean you should go digging through the trash for your expired meds just yet." For one thing, researchers tested medications that were unopened and still in their original bottles.

Previously: Is disposing of unused drugs in household trash the most environmental option? and Turn in your old pills on April 28
Photo by jpramirez

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