What Really Happens When You Take Antibiotics After Their Expiration Date


We all know that the expiry date on food is more of a guideline than a rule that must be strictly enforced-but what about antibiotics? Every drug sold in the United States comes with an expiry date marked on the package, but many of us don’t take it too seriously. It seems that drugs will last a lot longer than food. Leave a Tylenol caplet and an apple on the counter and see which one rots first. No chances to get this one correct.

It’s sadly not that simple, though. Medicines can not clearly spoil like food, however, over time, their active ingredients can break down. That often means they are not going to work as well as they can. They can also become harmful. There are many drugs that you can safely use years after the date that is printed on the box, but you need to know what they are – and what they are to avoid.

What Do The Expiration Dates Mean?

In 1979, the FDA passed a law requiring all drug manufacturers to give their products an expiry date. Officially, the date informs you how long you can rely on the drug to have the desired effect, as long as it is stored correctly. In truth, manufacturers, wary of being sued by someone who has taken drugs that have become unsuccessful or toxic, are pretty conservative with the dates they use.

They pick a date they are confident is well within the limit, then build in a bit more slack to allow poor storage. Effectively, the expiry date is one that the company voluntarily stands by in court. Pharma firms are asking people to dispose of medications which have expired. Yes, they want you to buy their product in a separate box. Actually, the main explanation is that when lawyers come knocking because someone got sick from taking expired tablets, they will point to their advice and say “We told you not to do that.”

The truth is that most medicinal items on the list will remain healthy and active long after the expiry date. It is not just a conjecture, no. We know for a fact that there are plenty of drugs going to operate just fine 10, 20, even 40 years after official expiration.

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The DoD is one of the biggest suppliers of drugs in the United States. Every military post has its own medical center. For their mobilization warehouses, field hospitals and ambulance units hold large quantities of medicines, and because they never know where they’re going to go and what they’re going to have to treat, they have to carry a wide range of medications. A majority of the medications the DoD purchases never get used. They are bought and placed in a container ready to be loaded into a plane and flown somewhere dusty, then they are taken out ten years later, they are incinerated, and the whole cycle starts again.

The DoD started to get fed up in the mid-1980s paying for drugs that would only be incinerated one day and initiated the Shelf Life Extension Program to see if they could hang on to their stockpiles a little longer. Reports from that initiative have been coming in for several years now, and they’re pretty good news in general.


SLEP results reported in 2009 showed that of 122 drugs tested in one study, 88% were still safe and acceptably effective at least one year after they expired – and many were good for far longer than that. In fact, the total extension time in military storage for all drugs was 6.5 years. Current DoD policy is not to prolong shelf life for more than ten years, but it has been found that at least one product is safe and effective 23 years after it expires.

Many drugs are based on a few specific ingredients, and SLEP found only two that a year after expiration lost a lot of their potency-aspirin and amphetamine. Insulin and epinephrine (EpiPens) are two other drugs which should never be taken until expiry. They easily lose productivity outside their planned shelf life.

However, acetaminophen (Tylenol), caffeine, codeine, methaqualone, butalbital, phenobarbital, pentobarbital, secobarbital, meprobamate, hydrocodone and chlorpheniramine are among many popular ingredients which remain safe and potent after expiry date.

What About Antibiotics?

Possibly not many preppers keep amphetamine stocks and most people may use Tylenol as a replacement for aspirin, but one group of preppers do worry about antibiotics. Since the 1940s, these have saved millions of lives, and they will become important after the SHTF. What wants to survive the apocalypse of EMP, then die because it has infected a cut finger? So there are good reasons why the preppers are thinking about ways to get their hands on antibiotics off-prescription. But, you have them once, for how long will you store them?

Once they hit their expiry date certain antibiotics must be disposed of. Tetracycline, one of these is a common broad-spectrum antibiotic. Usage of expired tetracycline can cause fatal damage to the kidneys.

Amoxicillin is used in many popular infections and is mostly supplied as a suspension liquid. This should not be kept for more than 14 days after mixing, as it may be contaminated with bacteria that are resistant.

Amoxicillin tablets or capsules are stable, however – the issue only affects liquid types. Many liquid antibiotics, like eye drops, are also potentially dangerous when older, and should never be used after the expiry date. A main argument here is that any bacteria in them have developed antibiotic resistance already, even if you can help, you just don’t want them to get into your body.

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Many antibiotics can well be used after their expiry dates. Which include ciprofloxacin, which is used for the treatment of diarrhea, respiratory, and typhoid infections and many other diseases. It’s a convenient one to put.

Captopril tablets, flucloxacillin capsules and theophylline tablets if properly stored, will also last for at least 18 months after the expiry date. Those antibiotics should treat most bacterial infections within them. Overall, if you stick to antibiotics in tablet or capsule form they will remain effective for anywhere between two and fifteen years after the date of their expiry.

Sadly, there are too many examples of drugs after expiry that are and aren’t healthy. There is no space in here to mention them. When you find that drugs are near expiring in your stockpile, and they aren’t listed here, the best thing to do is check online whether they can still be used safely. The FDA has an SLEP website, which lists some of the medications that have extended shelf life. It deserves a look.

In a real emergency, unless a drug is considered to become unsafe after its expiry date, is in liquid form or is clearly contaminated (excedrin tablets with a vinegary smell, for instance) you may also try any expired drugs you have. They are probably not going to hurt and there is an 88% chance that they will benefit according to the DoD. Using unexpired drugs is always safer if you have the option, but prepping is all about staying alive when choices are limited. If expired – but possibly still effective – drugs are all that you have at your disposal, it’s generally better to take the risk than to do nothing.

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