I'm not a doctor and you certainly shouldn't use expired drugs (or any drugs) based on my recommendation, but you may be interested to learn that most drug expiration dates are arbitrary and most drugs don't lose potency until long after the dates written on the bottles.

Do drugs really stop working after the date stamped on the bottle? Fifteen years ago, the U.S. military decided to find out. Sitting on a $1 billion stockpile of drugs and facing the daunting process of destroying and replacing its supply every two to three years, the military began a testing program to see if it could extend the life of its inventory.

The testing, conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, ultimately covered more than 100 drugs, prescription and over-the-counter. The results, never before reported, show that about 90% of them were safe and effective far past their original expiration date, at least one for 15 years past it.

In light of these results, a former director of the testing program, Francis Flaherty, says he has concluded that expiration dates put on by manufacturers typically have no bearing on whether a drug is usable for longer. Mr. Flaherty notes that a drug maker is required to prove only that a drug is still good on whatever expiration date the company chooses to set. The expiration date doesn't mean, or even suggest, that the drug will stop being effective after that, nor that it will become harmful.

Some people assert that drug companies want us to throw away potent drugs so they can sell us replacements, but misleading labeling does more damage that simply costing consumers money.

Meanwhile, poor countries - under urging from the World Health Organization - often reject drug-company donations of much-needed medicines if they are within a year of their expiration dates.

It isn't known how much of the $120 billion-plus spent annually in the U.S. on prescription and over-the-counter medicines goes to replace expired ones. But in a poll done for The Wall Street Journal by NPD Group Inc. of Port Washington, N.Y., 70% of 1,000 respondents said they probably wouldn't take a prescription drug after its expiration date; 72% said the same of an over-the-counter remedy.

"People think that, upon expiration, drugs suddenly turn toxic or lose all their potency," says Philip Alper, professor of medicine at University of California at San Francisco. In his own practice, Dr. Alper says, "I frequently hear - from patients who can't afford medicine - that they have thrown away expired drugs." He says companies should be required to test drugs for longer periods and set later expiration dates when results warrant.

One final thing to note is that some drugs definitely do decay quickly and can even become dangerous. These include tetracycline drugs and drugs in liquid form, as well as others. Do some research on your own, or talk to a doctor.

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