Modern medicine: When was your ‘Use-By’ date?


My dear old Mum who lived to be 94, didn’t enjoy her final years on the planet with failing eyesight (Macular degeneration) and increasing deafness and painful joints and the need to use a Zimmer frame. She used to say, “What am I doing here? I’ve passed my use-by date.” However, despite the limitations in her lifestyle, it still beat the alternative!

Some people ask me where I get the ideas for these weekly medical mutterings from the mount. The answer is simple – generally from you folk yourselves. Many of you will pop in and ask me a medical question, which may stimulate my imagination and away we go from there. This week’s is one of those.

One of these questions related to the expiry or “Use-By” date that you see on tablets, capsules, suspensions, etc. These expiry dates are worked out by the manufacturers of the magic medications and relates to how long they keep their biological activity at good therapeutic levels.

However, like 60 km/h speed limits where 59 km/h is “safe” and 61 km/h is “dangerous” – a totally ludicrous concept, the same exists for the expiry date on medications and even the family loaf of bread. If it says use before 19th of August it does not mean that on the 20th of August the medication changes into chalk. In today’s non-risk taking world, the manufacturers are covering their posteriors. They have to imagine that you are going to maltreat their medications and the expiry date really represents the “worst case” scenario.

Let me assure you that on the 20th of August, that medication is still good. In fact, many of the charity organizations go around the doctors’ surgeries in the western world, collecting “out of date” drugs to be used in the developing world. In Vietnam a few years ago the pharmacies used to sell medications with the expiry date cut off the foil wrappings. You can guess where they came from!

Another reason for short expiry times could be that the shorter it keeps, the more has to be manufactured and bought. But of course the large drug companies wouldn’t think that way, would they. That’s just a thought from old cynical brains like mine!

So how should you store your prescription medicines? Well the first thing is to look at the box and it generally tells you the ideal storage place and temperature, but if it doesn’t then you won’t go far wrong with storing it in the door of the household refrigerator. This is particularly so for liquids, suspensions, eye drops and the like; however, with opened bottles, there is always a very short expiry on them, generally around 30 days from the date of opening. Do not be tempted to extend this time. It is not worth it.

For individually wrapped tablets in blister packs or foil, then a cool dark cupboard is fine, but for capsules, it is even more important to keep them cool. Again the door of the fridge is a good place.

There is one other important consideration regarding keeping medications at home – children. You must keep drugs away from all children. Many medications are brightly colored, suspensions are sweet and children are attracted by them. Always keep medications out of the reach of children!

With the household bread – look for mould and discard!

So that is the expiry date story, not exciting, but mainly simple common sense.