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Can Expired Pain Pills Be Harmful? Should You Take Them?

According to the DEA, many people don't know how to properly clean out their medicine cabinets. Continue to read more about the adverse effects of taking expired pain pills and the risks of substance abuse.

By We Level Up | Editor Yamilla Francese | Clinically Reviewed By Lauren Barry, LMFT, MCAP, QS, Director of Quality Assurance | Editorial Policy | Research Policy | Last Updated: January 3, 2023

Expired Pain Pills Warning

In 1979, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began to mandate that prescription and over-the-counter medications have an expiration date. The expiration date is an important factor in determining whether the product is safe to use and will function properly.

The expiration date can be found printed on the label or stamped onto the bottle or carton, sometimes following “EXP.” It is crucial to know and stick to the expiration date of your medication. Using expired pain pills and medical products is risky and possibly harmful to your health.

You have more than likely heard many warnings about not taking pills past the expiration date, but you’ve probably also wondered what happens when you take expired pain pills. Why the warnings? What are the reasons you’re not supposed to take expired pills?

The FDA strongly discourages the use of expired pain pills because the chemical composition and potency of drugs can change over time. And holding on to unused drugs may promote prescription drug abuse and misuse, a dangerous practice that is growing at an alarming rate in the U.S.

There are common reasons many people take expired pills even when they’ve heard warnings against them. One reason is because of negligence, but it also may be due to the high cost of prescription medicine, a lack of insurance, or simply aren’t educated on reasons why they shouldn’t.

Can Pain Pills Expire?

According to research published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, Most of what is known about drug expiration dates comes from a study conducted by the Food and Drug Administration at the request of the military. With a large and expensive stockpile of drugs, the military faced tossing out and replacing its drugs every few years. What they found from the study is that 90% of more than 100 drugs, both prescription and over-the-counter, were perfectly good to use even 15 years after the expiration date. [1]

So, the expiration date doesn’t indicate a point at which the medication is no longer effective or has become unsafe to use. Medical authorities state if expired medicine is safe to take, even those that expired years ago. A rare exception to this may be tetracycline, but the report on this is controversial among researchers.

The effectiveness of a drug may indeed decrease over time, but much of the original potency remains even a decade after the expiration date. Excluding nitroglycerin, insulin, and liquid antibiotics, most medications are as long-lasting as the ones tested by the military. Placing a medication in a cool place, such as a refrigerator, will help a drug remain potent for many years.

Is the expiration date a marketing ploy by drug manufacturers, to keep you restocking your medicine cabinet and their pockets regularly? You can look at it that way. Or you can also look at it this way: The expiration dates are very conservative to ensure you get everything you paid for. And if a drug manufacturer had to do expiration-date testing for longer periods it would slow their ability to bring you new and improved formulations.

Overall, it’s really difficult to determine whether or not expired pain pills are safe, so medical professionals advise never using them, because of the risk of the unknown. Do pain pills expire? Yes. And failing to safely dispose of old medications, especially expired opioids, all too often leads to dangerous drugs ending up in the wrong hands. [2]

In addition to the risk of someone taking these leftover prescriptions, having expired pharmaceuticals around your house increases the potential of your loved ones or pets taking them, which can result in significant adverse effects or death.

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Prescription Drugs Addiction Statistics

Prescription drug abuse and misuse cause the largest percentage of deaths from drug overdoses. Taking expired pain pills might also be as dangerous. When it comes to medications with a high potential for abuse, such as opioids, it’s especially vital to dispose of expired pain pills since you’re helping to avoid possible abuse of the drug by individuals around you who may have access to it. If you have any questions regarding medication or what to do if it has expired, see your doctor.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), in 2020, approximately 12,290 people died from an overdose involving benzodiazepines. And approximately 16,416 people died from an overdose involving prescription opioids. [3]


758,000

Among people aged 12 or older in 2020, an estimated 0.3% (or about 758,000 people) had a prescription stimulant use disorder in the past 12 months.

Source: NIDA

1.2 Million

Among people aged 12 or older in 2020, an estimated 0.4% (or about 1.2 million people) had a prescription tranquilizer or sedative use disorder in the past 12 months.

Source: NIDA

2.3 Million

Among people aged 12 or older in 2020, an estimated 0.8% (or about 2.3 million people) had a prescription opioid use disorder in the past 12 months.

Source: NIDA


Expired Pain Pills Facts

The drug overdose epidemic in the United States is a clear and present public health, public safety, and national security threat. DEA is encouraging the public to remove unneeded medications from their homes as a measure of preventing medication misuse and opioid addiction from ever starting.

How long do pain pills last before they expire? Most drugs are labeled as expiring three years after their manufacture, but this doesn’t mean the drug has necessarily gone bad. All the expiration date tells you is the last day that the manufacturer guarantees the drug’s full potency and safety. Nevertheless, many unused medications can still pose great risks of abuse and potent effects.

How To Properly Dispose Expired Pain Pills, & Other Medications Publicly Made Available by DEA Facts Sheet

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Determining whether expired pain pills are still stable requires laboratory-based chemical analyses, which means you can't know how long that expired medicine sitting in your medicine cabinet at home will actually be effective.
Determining whether expired pain pills are still stable requires laboratory-based chemical analyses, which means you can’t know how long that expired medicine sitting in your medicine cabinet at home will actually be effective.

Are Expired Pain Pills Safe to Take?

Before you can understand what happens when you take expired pain pills, you should know why these dates or warnings are put on both prescription and non-prescription medicines.

First, all drugs have unique formulations that outline both their active and inactive ingredients. These formulations are how medicines are effective in treating certain diseases, conditions, and symptoms. When a drug is developed, manufacturers outline something called the shelf-life. Drug shelf-life refers to the length of time a drug can be used without deterioration. This includes looking at effectiveness and safety within a given period.

When you use a medicine within its outlined shelf life, and of course, as directed, it will maintain its maximum effectiveness and safety level. Another word for effectiveness in this context is efficacy. This indicates the ability of a drug to create a certain result. The higher the efficacy level of a drug, the better the results. If you take a drug that isn’t at its maximum efficacy level, it can lead to a lack of treatment regarding symptoms for which the drug was prescribed.

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Safety Issues of Expired Pain Pills

Along with how well a drug will work, something else to consider within the context of medication expiration is its safety. The chemical and physical elements of a drug can change over time, which can lead to safety issues. There are often physical signs of these changes, such as discoloration of expired pain pills.

Despite the fact that some expired pain pills may be effective beyond their expiration dates, studies also conclude that the true shelf life of medication varies by the:

  • Medication itself
  • The particular batch of the medication
  • Storage conditions, including heat, humidity, and length of time the container has been open

Some claim that the details matter when it comes to considering expired pain pills. The explanation is that occasionally turning to expired medications for inconvenient, uncomfortable symptoms carries less risk than relying on expired medication for a serious health condition you may have.

For example, taking an expired antihistamine to fight a bout of seasonal allergies or a pain reliever to relieve a headache may be harmless, with the worst-case scenario being that the medicine just doesn’t help you feel better. On the other hand, relying on expired heart medication could lead to a dangerous and even life-threatening heart problem or complication. In this case, you should never take expired medication and call your doctor immediately when a refill is required.

Expired Pain Pills Abuse

Prescription drug abuse is at an all-time high in the United States, and keeping unused and expired medicines such as Xanax or opioids, can lead to an increased likelihood of abuse of these drugs. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration warns that many abused prescription drugs that ultimately lead to accidental overdoses and addiction are obtained from friends and family.

Taking Expired Xanax

When people are wondering what happens when you take expired pills, one of the most common drugs they’re referring to is Xanax. With Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication, people will often give or sell their unused pills to friends or family members, and if they’re expired, it can be troubling.

First, prescription medicines like Xanax are only guaranteed safe and effective up to the expiration date that’s listed. Also, you should realize that anytime you’re taking Xanax without a prescription, that’s considered abuse of the drug. Of course, expired Xanax or any expired pills may still be safe, but they may not be, so it’s not a risk worth taking.

Shelf Life of Adderall

How long does it take for Adderall to expire? After opening, Adderall must be used within a year. Adderall should be used as prescribed medications in accordance with your doctor’s recommendations and used up within a year. The typical expiration date is one year, beyond which the main concern is diminished efficacy.

Commonly Misused Prescription Drugs

  • Opioids – Opioids are a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and pain relievers available legally by prescription, such as oxycodone (OxyContin®), hydrocodone (Vicodin®), codeine, morphine, and many others. All opioids are chemically related and interact with opioid receptors on nerve cells in the body and brain. Opioid pain relievers are generally safe when taken for a short time and as prescribed by a doctor, but because they produce euphoria in addition to pain relief, they can be misused (taken differently or in a larger quantity than prescribed, or taken without a doctor’s prescription). Regular use—even as prescribed by a doctor—can lead to dependence and, when misused, opioid pain relievers can lead to addiction, overdose incidents, and deaths.
The law requires expiration dates on drugs. Drug makers select a date that they know will be safe. Many expired pain pills are probably effective after that date but are not tested to be sure unless you will take it to a lab test that requires a complex process.
The law requires expiration dates on drugs. Drug makers select a date that they know will be safe. Many expired pain pills are probably effective after that date but are not tested to be sure unless you will take it to a lab test that requires a complex process.
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin) – It is commonly sold under the brand name OxyContin. It’s also sold in combination with acetaminophen as Percocet. It changes how your central nervous system (CNS) responds to pain. Like heroin, it creates a euphoric, sedative effect. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), 58.8 million prescriptions for oxycodone were dispensed in the United States in 2013. Does oxycodone expire? Yes. You should not take this medicine after its expiry date. If you’ve had medicine for a while, check the expiry date before using it. You should also make sure that you’ve stored the medicine properly, as described on the packaging or leaflet. When does oxycodone expire? Drug expiration dates exist on most medication labels, it could be best to also consult your doctor. Keeping unused and expired pain pills such as oxycodone pose a great risk of overdose and drug misuse.
  • Codeine – Codeine is typically prescribed to treat mild to moderate pain. It’s also combined with other medications to treat cold and flu symptoms. For example, it’s commonly found in prescription-strength cough syrup. When consumed in high quantities, codeine-based cough syrup has a sedative effect. It can also cause altered levels of consciousness. It provides the base for an illicit drug concoction known as “purple drank,” “sizzurp,” or “lean.” This concoction also contains soda and sometimes candy.
  • Fentanyl – Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid. It’s prescribed for acute and chronic pain, typically in people with cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine. It creates feelings of euphoria and relaxation. Fentanyl is also illegally manufactured and sold as an illicit recreational drug. In many cases, it’s mixed with heroin, cocaine, or both. In October 2017, the CDC reported that fentanyl is involved in over half of opioid-related overdose deaths across 10 states. In addition to the common signs and symptoms associated with opioid misuse, fentanyl misuse may also lead to hallucinations and bad dreams.
  • Meperidine (Demerol) – Meperidine is a synthetic opioid. It’s often sold under the brand name Demerol. It’s typically used to treat moderate to severe pain. Like other opioids, it produces feelings of euphoria.

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Most drugs can be discarded in the trash, but the F.D.A. recommends that you mix them with coffee grounds, dirt, or cat litter so that they are less appealing to children or pets who might consider eating them, and that they should be sealed in a bag or container.  Some expired pain pills that have abuse potential, including those containing opioids, should not be thrown away.
Most drugs can be discarded in the trash, but the F.D.A. recommends that you mix them with coffee grounds, dirt, or cat litter so that they are less appealing to children or pets who might consider eating them, and that they should be sealed in a bag or container.  Some expired pain pills that have abuse potential, including those containing opioids, should not be thrown away.

Disposing of Expired Pain Pills

Rather than wondering what happens when you take expired pain pills, it’s often best to just go ahead and dispose of out-of-date drugs. The FDA recommends that you take certain steps to dispose of drugs properly when they expire:

  • The first is to check the label of the medication to determine if there are any specific instructions for disposal.
  • If there aren’t specific instructions, there are many government-operated drug take-back programs that are publicly available.
  • If you can’t find one of these programs in your area, you can throw medicine in the trash, but try to mix it with something like coffee grounds before throwing it away.
  • Also, before you do dispose of expired pills, check to make sure that the FDA doesn’t classify them as drugs that should be flushed rather than thrown out.

Ultimately, taking expired pills can be risky. With drugs like Xanax that have a high potential for abuse, it’s particularly important to dispose of expired pills, because you’re helping prevent potential abuse of the drug by the people around you who could have access to it. If you’re ever unsure about medicine or what to do when it’s expired, contact your physician for advice.

Reclaim Your Life From Pain Pills Abuse

Pain pills addiction is a chronic disease that can cause major health, social, and economic problems that should not be taken lightly. We Level Up rehab treatment & detox center can provide you, or someone you love, with the tools to recover from pain pills addiction with professional and safe treatment. Feel free to call us to speak with one of our drug addiction counselors. Call us about your symptoms, and we can help you determine and develop a treatment plan.

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10 Most What Happens When You Take Expired Pain Pills? Frequently Asked Questions

  1. When do pain pills expire?

    Most drugs are labeled as expiring three years after their manufacture, but this doesn’t mean the drug has necessarily gone bad. All the expiration date tells you is the last day that the manufacturer guarantees the drug’s full potency and safety.

  2. Does expired oxycodone work?

    Once the expiration date has passed there is no guarantee that the medicine will be safe and effective. If your oxycodone has expired, do not use it.

  3. Does oxycodone expire?

    Yes, it does. Despite being prescribed for pain treatment, this prescription medication has a history of abuse, with some users even continuing to use it after its expiration date. It may be harmful to your health and a type of drug abuse to use expired medication.

  4. Can expired medicine kill?

    Typically, no. Expiration dates are times after which a product’s potency cannot be guaranteed by the maker. The drug could not have the desired effect or harm your health in different ways, but it is unlikely that you would die.

  5. Does kratom expire?

    In a nutshell, yes, kratom does expire. Since kratom is a plant, it will eventually naturally decompose as all living things do. However, kratom can last for a long time if it is well-dried and kept.

  6. Can expired Xanax hurt you? Can I take expired Xanax?

    Is it ok to use expired Xanax? Yes is the clear-cut response. Like all other medications, Xanax has an expiration date. Can taking expired Xanax hurt you? Does expired Xanax go bad? If you take alprazolam or Xanax after the expiration date, there is a chance that the drug’s efficacy has already decreased.

  7. Will expired tramadol hurt you?

    It does, indeed. This prescription drug has a history of abuse despite being prescribed for the treatment of pain; some users even kept using it until the expiration date. The use of expired medication may be detrimental to your health and constitute a form of drug abuse.

  8. Is it bad to take expired Adderall?

    Is it safe to take expired Adderall? Adderall is probably not an exception to the rule that most medications retain their full potency for years after their expiration date. Is expired Adderall safe? Over time, it might progressively lose some of its effectiveness, but the majority of the original active ingredient is likely still present. This does not imply that taking it is secure.

  9. Does Valium expire?

    Make use of Valium within a year. Diazepam, often known as Valium, is a prescription medication, hence there are additional rules regarding its expiration date. Pharmacies restrict the use of Valium for one year after dispensing it as prescription medicine.

  10. What are the side effects of taking expired Adderall?

    Is it bad to take expired Adderall? If taken after its expiration, it can develop harmful properties for the kidneys. Additionally, since they degrade quickly and could lose strength, several medications including insulin, nitroglycerin, and liquid antibiotics shouldn’t be taken past their expiration date.

Search We Level Up Expired Pain Pills Detox & Mental Health Topics & Resources
Sources

[1] Don’t Be Tempted to Use Expired Medicines – FDA / U.S. Food & Drug Administration

[2] Gikonyo, D., Gikonyo, A., Luvayo, D., & Ponoth, P. (2019). Drug expiry debate: the myth and the reality. African health sciences19(3), 2737–2739. https://doi.org/10.4314/ahs.v19i3.49.

[3] Misuse of Prescription Drugs Research Report: What is the scope of prescription drug misuse in the United States? – National Institute on Drug Abuse/ NIDA

[4] Co-Occurring Dual Diagnosis Treatment – We Level Up Florida

[5] Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction DrugFacts – National Institute on Drug Abuse

[6] National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) – Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

[7] McKay JR. Impact of Continuing Care on Recovery From Substance Use Disorder. Alcohol Res. 2021 Jan 21;41(1):01. DOI: 10.35946 PMID: 33500871; PMCID: PMC7813220.

[8] Fluyau D, Charlton TE. Drug Addiction. [Updated 2022 Aug 29]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK549783/ 

[9] Justinova Z, Panlilio LV, Goldberg SR. Drug addiction. Curr Top Behav Neurosci. 2009;1:309-46. doi: 10.1007/978-3-540-88955-7_13. PMID: 21104390; PMCID: PMC3039293.

[10] Jahan AR, Burgess DM. Substance Use Disorder. [Updated 2022 May 5]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK570642/