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My pills are expired. Now what?

It happens every day. You have a headache or another ailment and go to the medicine cabinet to find relief. After shaking a few pills out of the bottle, you happen to glance at the expiration date stamped on the side and realize those pain-relief pills have expired. You wonder if you will get sick if you swallow them or if you can get away with it this time.

Who isn't trying to stretch a dollar a little further these days? And with prescription drug costs rising and some companies cutting back on health insurance coverage, there are thousands of people who may be between plans and cannot afford to continually restock their medicine cabinets with new drugs. Is it safe to take that anti-anxiety medication even if its expiration date has come and gone? Will those acid reducers make you even more sick? These are viable questions.

For the most part, medical experts say that expired drugs are reasonably safe to take. According to information published in Pharmacology Today, the expiration date stamped on over-the-counter medication is a date at which the drug manufacturer can still guarantee full potency of the drug. The expiration date on your prescription medicine bottle may be the date that the prescription -- not the medicine -- expires, generally a year after the medication was filled. A law was passed in 1979 that required drug manufacturers to issue the expiration date as a means to giving consumers what they paid for, and likely to avoid litigation over drugs that are no longer effective.

Medical authorities state that the majority of expired drugs are safe to take -- even medications that expired years ago. However, their potency may be reduced. Liquid medications, such as oral antibiotics, may lose their potency faster than pills. Tetracycline, a broad-spectrum antibiotic, is one that causes some controversy regarding safety after expiration. So it's best to discard tetracycline pills once they have expired. Others say that nitroglycerine and hydrocodone (Vicodin) may present some dangers after expiration, but this has not been proven in any large-scale study.

If you need some more reassurance that those expired pills are fine to take, consider a study conducted by the US Food and Drug Administration at the request of the US military. The military was considering disposing of and replacing its drug store every few years because of expiration dates, which would have come at a considerable cost. After a lengthy analysis, the FDA determined that 90 percent of the more than 100 drugs they tested -- both prescription and OTC -- were still potent even 15 years after the expiration date.

That doesn't mean it is always safe or effective to take an expired pill, especially if you are self-diagnosing a medical condition and subsequently self-medicating. Medications should always be used under the guidance of a doctor who can monitor dosing and progress. Also, medications should never be shared among different members of the family for whom they were not prescribed.

Individuals who stockpile medications also run the risk of some other dangers. There's the chance of grabbing the wrong bottle and taking a medication that is not needed, a problem common with the elderly that can result in illness. With narcotic and prescription drug abuse a rising epidemic among young people, having a cabinet full of drugs could prove tempting to adolescents thinking about getting high from drugs readily available in their own homes.

The best advice regarding expired drugs is when in doubt, throw them out. But if you've just swallowed some expired ibuprofen and are worried about side effects, chances are there is nothing to worry about.