Preparedness – Storage and Shelf Life of Over-the-Counter Medication

Storage and Shelf Life of Over the Counter Medications @ Common Sense Homesteading

This is a guest post by Lily Pearce.

Most households have supplies of certain non-prescription medications, such as painkillers, anti-diarrhea tablets, laxatives and antacids.  However, most people give very little thought to the storage and shelf-life of over the counter medication, beyond keeping things out of the reach of children.  If you have an emergency medical kit, you may stock up and end up storing items for longer periods of time.  How long is too long to store over the counter medication, and what’s the best way to store it?

Storage and Shelf Life of Over-the-Counter Medication – How Long is Too Long?

Medicines, like food products, have an expiration date on their packaging. The expiration date on medication is the date beyond which the manufacturers can no longer guarantee full effectiveness or safe usage.

Generally, over-the-counter medicines should have a shelf life of around four or five years, meaning they should last around that long after the date they are purchased.

How to Correctly Store Medication

Most people will throw food out once it passes its ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ date, as it is no longer guaranteed to be safe to consume. The same thing ultimately applies to medicine. Once beyond the expiration date, manufacturers cannot be held legally responsible for any damage the medicine does to you and can no longer guarantee the medicine will actually do what it is supposed to do.

So should you throw medicine out as soon as it reaches its expiration date?

The answer is somewhat complicated but – not necessarily.

Research carried out by the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Agency has suggested that most over-the-counter medication, including medicine bought from an online pharmacy, actually remains stable for several years after reaching its expiration date, assuming correct storage procedures have been followed.

Correct storage typically requires the medicine to be kept somewhere dry, away from extreme temperatures and below 25 degrees Celsius (77 Fahrenheit). A cabinet, cupboard or medicine box is ideal for this purpose.

Medicine should also be stored in its original packaging and should remain sealed prior to use. Tablets that are packaged in blister packs are still classified as sealed even if the outer packaging has been opened. However, medicine that is packaged in a bottle, which has been opened, should be used before reaching the expiration date, as the medicine will have been exposed to oxygen within the air, leaving it prone to microbial contamination.

salve expiration date

Salves are normally labeled with an expiration date at the end of the tube.

Generally, even years after the expiration date, most medicines will be safe to consume. Their effectiveness, on the other hand, cannot be so easily guaranteed. So, for instance, if you have a headache and you find acetaminophen tablets that are a year past their expiration date, it is safe to take them and they will most likely help, however, they may be less effective than acetaminophen would usually be in this situation.

Which Medications Should NOT be Taken Past Their Expiration Date

For the most part, medicine will remain safe to consume past its expiration date, however, there are some exceptions.

Insulin, eye drops and antibiotics should never be used beyond their expiration date. In actual fact, in most instances, these medications will have a discard date which kicks in once they are opened. Any medicine with a ‘discard date’ rather than an expiration date should not be used beyond this date, under any circumstances.

Tablets and capsules have been found to be more stable than liquid medications, so it would be wise to refrain from using liquid medicines after they expire.
Additionally, medicines which have been exposed to light, heat or moisture, for any reason, should not be used beyond their use by date.

anti-diarrhea medication

Further Safety Precautions

Although taking medicines such as acetaminophen or diarrhea capsules beyond their expiration date is acceptable as a last resort, it is still not recommended and should only be done in an emergency situation, where no other possible alternatives exist.

You should still safely dispose of the old medication (see FDA safe medicine disposal guidelines) and replace it as soon as possible, in order to guarantee you receive the maximum benefit in the future.

Is expired medication safe to use?

Safe to use? Probably, but less effective.

Furthermore, while the potency and effectiveness of the medicine may decline after it reaches its expiration date, it is still vital that you stick to the recommended dosage for any medicine. Under absolutely no circumstances should you try to compensate for this loss of effectiveness by exceeding the recommended dosage.

If you remain in any doubt as to whether your medicine is safe to consume, avoid doing so and check with a pharmacist.

Lily Pearce is a health writer for one of only two fully licensed online prescribing pharmacies in the US. She grew up in Phoenix but is currently visiting family in Italy and completing her work with a view of the Mediterranean.

Posts may contain affiliate links, which allow me to earn a commission to support the site at no extra cost to you. Thank you!
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  1. says

    I used to know a nurse who worked in a country hospital (Australia) many years ago and she told me that the hospital often passed some of their out of date or nearly out of date medicine that could be used on animals to the local vet instead of throwing it out.

  2. says

    I completely disagree that antibiotics cannot be used after their expiration dates.

    If antibiotics are stored in a cool, dry, dark place they will last as long as any other pill form of medication — many, many years past their expiration. The “tetracycline myth”, so frequently sited, has been disproven — it was based on a single incident, with questionable conclusions, and has not been replicated.

    Other than that (sorry for the rant) good information. Medications in liquids and creams form should not be stored long-term.

    Again, this information is only for a collapse/long-term disaster situation. Under normal conditions follow your doctors advice, and seek available medical treatment.

    Joe Alton M.D., of [url=]Doom & Bloom[/url] has done extensive research in this topic and has some great information on this and collapse medicine in general.

      • j. pridmore says

        Dang, never got it. But in relation to your post, if it’s truly TEOTWAWKI then I am using expired meds. Especially since it might be a while before the stores get restocked. Working in the medical profession for the last 26 years, I know that meds that are close to or have past expiration tend to be shipped to third world countries for use.

        • says

          My husband worked in a hospital run by nuns for 16 years, and they used to use to use the expired meds for their missionary work, too. In ideal conditions, one follows the rules, in less than ideal conditions, you do what you need to do. Still working on my herbal skills to have more treatment options, but much to learn yet.

  3. J.L. Eieio says

    Interesting post. Thanks for presenting this info.

    There is a book you should read in reference to ancient medical practices:

    The Healing Hand Man and Wound in the Ancient World by: Guido Majno

    It’s written by an MD. It’s more of a history, but interestingly enough, he included a section where he lab tested the efficacy of ancient medicinals. One surprising medicinal was copper, in various forms. It was used as a bacteriostatic topical. (like the old sulfa powders?) The most commonly used forms were Verdigris, which is the corrosion on copper, malachite & chrysacolla (sp?) Also, wine is bacteriostatic. He even determined at what point (age of the wine) that it was most effective. A fascinating read. You might pick up some useful info from this book. I have seen it available at as a used book. I’m pretty sure it is out of print.

  4. Marilyn says

    You should also at least mention that some medications have very strict storage/usage requirements like nitroglycerin tablets.
    These MUST be kept in their sealed glass jars until needed for use and discarded once opened for the specified number of days.
    Some medications are just TOO important to mess around with.

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