Don't Be Tempted: Expired Medications Pose Risks, Especially for Older Adults

Everyone, especially older adults managing multiple medications, must pay close attention to expiration dates to ensure safety and effectiveness. Expired medications can lose potency or become harmful, posing significant health risks, especially for seniors.

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Don't Be Tempted: Expired Medications Pose Risks, Especially for Older Adults
5 Min Read April 29th, 2024

Many of us have a graveyard of old medications lurking in the back of the cabinet. But that forgotten bottle of pills or dusty inhaler could be more than just clutter - it could be a health hazard.

The expiration date on a medication isn't just a suggestion; it's a critical marker set by the manufacturer to ensure the drug's potency and safety. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), expired medications can be ineffective or even dangerous.

According to Neha Vyas, MD, a family medicine physician with Cleveland Clinic, now is the perfect time to purge those old prescriptions.

Doctor Nahe Vyas, MD

Expired medications have the potential for becoming more toxic and potentially interfering with other new medicines that you may be taking. On the flip side, expired medications may lose their potency and not work as effectively.

Here's why hanging on to those old med bottles is not a good idea:

  • Loss of potency: Over time, medications can degrade, losing their effectiveness in treating the intended condition. For example, expired antibiotics may not fight infections properly, potentially leading to more serious illness and antibiotic resistance.
  • Unexpected side effects: The breakdown of a medication can create new chemicals that weren't present when it was active. These can cause unpredictable side effects, ranging from mild discomfort to serious health problems.

Dr. Vyas said checking expiration dates is crucial, especially for liquid antibiotics, insulin, and blood thinners, because these medications can be harmful past their expiration dates.

The danger of accidental poisoning, which can result from taking medications that have been in the medicine cabinet too long, is a genuine concern. Vyas emphasizes the importance of taking prescriptions as directed.

If you have kept a whole bunch of drugs from ten years ago, that's generally not a good thing because you may need to talk to your doctor about what the best and most appropriate medicine and most recent medicine is for you.

Expired Meds - Older Adults at Increased Risk

Older adults are particularly vulnerable to the dangers of expired medications. They often take multiple medications for various chronic conditions, making it easier to lose track of expiration dates. Additionally, the body's ability to process medications can change with age, making older adults more susceptible to adverse reactions from expired drugs.

When to Toss and When to Keep

The general rule is to discard any medication past its expiration date. However, there are a few rare exceptions:

  • Certain unopened over-the-counter (OTC) medications: Studies suggest some OTC drugs, like pain relievers, may retain potency for a short time beyond their expiration date. However, it's important to consult with a pharmacist before using any expired medication, even OTC drugs.
  • Shortage of a Critical Medication: In rare instances, there may be a shortage of a critical medication. Here, healthcare providers may, on a case-by-case basis, consider using expired versions of the drug if the benefits outweigh the risks. This would likely only be done in a controlled medical setting and under close supervision.
  • Disaster Preparedness: Some experts suggest keeping a small stockpile of essential medications for emergencies if access to healthcare becomes limited. This could include certain expired medications, but with the understanding that their effectiveness might be reduced. It's important to note that this is a controversial suggestion, and some health professionals strongly advise against keeping any expired medications.

In summary, the safest approach is always to dispose of expired medications and get new prescriptions. The scenarios mentioned should be considered only as a last resort and under the guidance of a healthcare professional.

Safe Disposal of Old Meds

Throwing expired medications in the trash can be risky if not done correctly. Accidental ingestion by children or pets is a concern. The FDA recommends mixing expired medications with an unappetizing substance like coffee grounds or kitty litter, then sealing them in a container before disposal in the trash.

Certain medications, however, should never go in the trash and require special disposal methods. Check the medication label or consult a pharmacist for specific instructions.

Keeping Your Medications Safe

Here are some tips to keep your medications organized and prevent expired drugs from accumulating:

  • Regularly review your medications and discard expired ones.
  • Invest in a pill organizer to keep track of daily doses.
  • Set up reminders for medication refills.
  • Store medications in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight.

By following these steps, you can minimize the risk of taking expired medications and ensure you're receiving the most effective treatment possible.

Dr. Vyas adds that bringing medications to your annual exam is always a good idea so your doctor can help you decide which prescriptions to throw away. Many older adults may have multiple doctors prescribing medications. 

Be sure that you or an older family member inform every doctor of what medications you are taking, the reasons for the medication, and the date the medication was last refilled. 

Safe Medication Management: A Priority for In-Home and Long-Term Care

Safe medication management is crucial for older adults receiving care at home or in long-term care facilities. Caregivers play a vital role in ensuring residents receive the correct medications at the prescribed dosage and frequency. A structured approach minimizes the risk of errors, missed doses, or even adverse reactions due to expired medications.


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  • Clear Communication and Records: Collaboration between doctors, pharmacists, and caregivers is essential. A comprehensive medication administration record (MAR) should be readily available, detailing each resident's medications, dosages, schedules, and allergies.
  • Standardized Procedures: Facilities should have clear policies and procedures for medication handling, storage, and administration. This includes protocols for double-checking medications before dispensing, using appropriate measuring tools, and documenting each dose.
  • Technology Integration: Technological aids like barcodes on medication packaging and electronic MAR systems can significantly reduce medication errors. These tools can also flag potential drug interactions and alert caregivers to expiring medications.

Avoiding Expired Medications

  • Regular Reviews: Caregivers should regularly review medication supplies and expiration dates. Expired medications should be discarded following safe disposal protocols outlined by the FDA.
  • Communication with Pharmacies: Open communication with pharmacies ensures timely refills and avoids situations in which caregivers might be tempted to use expired medications due to a lack of alternatives.
  • Resident Education: Involving care recipients in medication management can empower them to recognize and report discrepancies.

By implementing these safeguards, caregivers can ensure the well-being of older adults and minimize the risks associated with medication management.

Aging and Meds

As you age, you may find yourself prescribed multiple medications due to the natural progression of aging and emerging chronic conditions. Medications are crucial for maintaining health, managing symptoms, and preventing disease progression. However, managing several medications simultaneously can be challenging. 

You should maintain an organized system to ensure these medications are taken correctly and to avoid risks like drug interactions and side effects. Older adults should seek help from family or caregivers. 

Regular visits to your healthcare providers are crucial as you get older. These visits enable your doctors to review all your prescribed medications and adjust your treatment plans as necessary. 

You need to understand each medication's purpose, dosage, and potential side effects. As your body changes with age, its response to drugs can also shift, making vigilant medication management even more vital. By seeing your doctor regularly and adhering to your prescribed medication regimen, you can significantly enhance your health and quality of life, maintaining your activity and independence for as long as possible.

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About the Author

Linda Maxwell is a retired journalist who now focuses on writing about topics that captivate her, such as aging, health, long-term care, and retirement issues. Her aim is to maintain an active and engaged mind, and through her writing, she hopes to help others stay positively engaged with life.

LTC News Contributor Linda Maxwell

Linda Maxwell

Contributor since December 11th, 2017

Editor's Note

Understanding the importance of healthcare as you age is vital, especially once you pass 50. As you grow older, it's a natural part of life for your health, body, and mind to start to decline, resulting in an increased need for help with daily living activities or even full-time supervision due to conditions like dementia. Recognizing this reality is crucial, not only for your well-being but also because of the rising costs associated with in-home care and long-term facility care.

It's crucial to note that health insurance, including Medicare, covers only short-term skilled care after hospitalization or a medical event. It does not cover long-term care, which is often required as you age or suffer significant health issues. These limitations mean that without proper planning, the financial burden of long-term care can rapidly deplete your savings, including funds from a 401(k) or other retirement accounts.

Ensuring a solid financial foundation as you age and protecting your savings from escalating care costs is a wise strategy. Incorporating Long-Term Care Insurance into your retirement planning can help achieve this. 

An LTC policy is designed to cover the costs of long-term care services, whether they occur at home or in a specialized facility. By securing such a policy, you not only protect your savings but also reduce the potential burden on your adult children. Without an LTC policy, adult children often find themselves as the default caregivers, which can significantly interfere with their own lives, careers, and family responsibilities, creating stress and financial strain.

Obtaining Long-Term Care Insurance is a proactive step that helps maintain your independence and financial security while also providing peace of mind to your family. It allows you to age with dignity, knowing that your care needs will be met without unduly impacting your loved ones' lives. 

Most people establish their long-term care plan in their 40s or 50s; however, depending on their health, affordable options are available for those in their 60s and beyond. 

Professional Advice Vital for Long-Term Care Planning

Long-Term Care Insurance specialists are uniquely prepared to assist you in shopping and obtaining an affordable LTC Insurance policy. An LTC specialist fully understands individual company policies, benefits, and underwriting standards. Their expertise enables them to help you find the most suitable coverage at the most competitive price, simplifying the complex process of selecting insurance.

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The Corporation offers this designation for Long-Term Care Certification. This independent non-profit organization establishes long-term care planning education standards.

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