Banner Health Services  

Do flu and cold remedies go bad?


Misty Vo is a pharmacist at Banner Desert Medical Center.

Question: Do cold and flu remedies go bad?

Answer: We get this question a lot, probably because when most people come down with a cold or flu, they are unlikely to be standing in a drug store, looking at yards of remedies. Most of the time, we wake up and scrounge around looking for anything that will relieve our misery. It is only after swallowing the pills or syrup that we read the label and discover the medication expired two years ago.

What does that mean? Well, the standard answer is, of course, “never take expired drugs,” and that is sound advice.

R.C. Lyon, deputy director of product quality research at the FDA, recommends that consumers pay attention to expiration dates on drug bottles because shelf-life recommendations apply to drugs stored in original containers under ideal conditions. Once opened, air, humidity, temperature and light may all contribute to the early decomposition of the drug.

The good news is there is little evidence that old drugs become toxic over time. They may certainly become ineffective and even develop disagreeable odors, but there has not been a reported case of injury from expired drugs in over 40 years. That case involved expired tetracycline; however, new dosage forms of tetracycline avoid that toxic degradation. 

If you open an old bottle of aspirin and notice the smell of vinegar, the biggest danger is that you might be taking an ineffective drug. Acetic acid, which gives vinegar is distinctive smell, is a by-product of the breakdown of aspirin. Although the vinegar won’t do you any harm, its presence means that there is much less aspirin remaining to do you any good. Many other drugs may decompose in ways that are not detectable. If you decide to take an expired drug, you may not be getting any benefit whatsoever.

The most important risk of using old medication is contamination from past users. Remember, the last person to use that product was sick. There are some nasty bacteria and viruses that love to hang around waiting for some unsuspecting human to give them a free ride to a brand new home.

Be prepared this cold and flu season. It does not take much effort or money to keep a fresh supply of basic remedies on hand, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, cough syrup and cold relief. Always store your medications in a cool, dry place, not the bathroom or kitchen, and away from children. That way, the next time you are sniffling and shuffling around in your bathrobe and slippers, you can go right to some fresh symptomatic relief.

Reviewed November 2010

Page Last Modified: 11/22/2010
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