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The surprising dangers of expired drugs

Terry Moy-Brown, DO

If you hold on to old medications because you might need them later or you don’t want to waste pricy drugs, then you could be putting your family and yourself at risk. Expired prescription and over-the-counter medications can be hazardous to your health and safety.

Many people assume that drug expiration dates are arbitrary, or that drugs simply become less potent as they age. That’s incorrect. While some drugs become less effective, most break down into other components.

Antibiotics are notorious for deteriorating into toxic substances. Cipro, a drug commonly used to treat urinary tract infections, is safe when taken as directed. However, as it ages it breaks down into several compounds: some toxic to the liver, and others carcinogenic. This means a patient treating herself with an expired prescription could experience liver damage or could develop cancer down the line.

Taking expired antibiotics poses other problems. Different antibiotics are targeted toward different types of infections and need to be taken for the right length of time. Patients who take the wrong antibiotic won’t get better. Patients who don’t take enough of an antibiotic over a long enough period may weaken, but not kill the organism making them sick. This leads to drug resistance. I’ve seen patients who are running out of oral prescription options and may need to go to the hospital for IV antibiotics for the next infection. It’s important to see your doctor when you are sick, rather than using old prescriptions.

Expired antibiotics aren’t the only old drugs that cause problems. Expired narcotics pose a unique risk. Children, grandchildren, friends, and other relatives can access opioids used for a previous condition or surgery, and use them to initiate or feed an addiction. Two-thirds of teens who report abuse of prescription pain relievers get them from friends, family, and acquaintances, according to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. No one wants to be a supplier to their own children.

It’s important to store all medications out of reach of kids and teens. Reconsider keeping medicines in the bathroom. The area is highly accessible, and the temperature and humidity accelerate the chemical breakdown of medications.

Once you decide to get rid of expired drugs, it’s important to do so properly. Flushing medications puts chemicals in the Columbia River and our water supply and soil, while throwing them in the garbage puts children, pets, and wildlife at risk. Instead, dispose of medications through a secure take-back program. Find year-round disposal locations for sharps, controlled substances, and non-controlled substances at clarkgreenneighbors.org.

This week, you can also drop off any unwanted medications at the Clark County drug take-back event, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, April 27. Drugs will be accepted at the Battle Ground Police Department, Kaiser Permanente Cascade Park, PeaceHealth Southwest Urgent Care, and Washougal Silver Star Search and Rescue.

Dr. Terry Moy-Brown is an emergency medicine physician at Vancouver Clinic’s Urgent Care Department. She has a special interest in public health. She is fluent in Spanish and conversant in Portuguese.