NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - The "best by" date on milk cartons or meat or any other food product usually means it's no longer good to consume after that date. But what about expiration dates on medication? Are they still effective and safe to take?
It's a dilemma many people face.
You're sick, you open your medicine cabinet only to realize the medication you need expired a year ago or longer.
Patients we talked to say they're skeptical and cautious about what they put into their body.
Some told FOX 8 they get rid of their medications after two years.
But what does the expiration date really mean when it comes to over-the-counter and prescription drugs?
"It doesn't go up in a puff of smoke," says Majoria Drugs pharmacist Al Spitale.
He says he gets that question all the time.
"The manufacturer guarantees that drug at full potency up until that date they put on there," Spitale said.
By law, he says his answer is always the same.
"The rules we follow, if someone calls and asks if something is still good, we tell them it's good for one year from the date dispensed," says Spitale. "That's from our standpoint, from our legal standpoint."
But the reality may be different for different people.
"A lot of my patients are saving their medications for a rainy day." She says, "I have family members that are guilty of it as well because the cost of medication is so high," Dr. Whitney Hardy with Ochsner says.
Dr. Hardy says taking pills past their prime is a gamble.
"Medications that are in capsule form or tablet form have been proven to last much longer than the expiration date so you may have a better chance with those," he says. "You want to be careful though, even with antibiotics."
Experts say don't used expired liquid medicines, insulin and other injectable drugs that must be refrigerated. They can break down faster than pills.
"Could it hurt you? No. It's not gonna hurt you," says Spitale. "The worst that can happen is it doesn't work. The only drug that will hurt you is Tetracycline and Tetra derivatives, which are Metacycline or Doxycycline. Taking those medicines out of date can cause kidney problems. Also, Nitrogylcerin can lose its potency."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the agency that helps set the dates along with manufacturers, advises against using expired drugs..
And that amounts to a lot of waste, with billions of dollars worth of medicine being thrown away every year.
At the same time, the federal government isn't necessarily practicing what it preaches. For decades, the feds have stockpiled medication, antidotes and vaccines in case of a large scale emergency.
The FDA's Shelf Life Extension Program means the U.S. military can use medicines for years past their labeled expiration date.
Spitale says,: "The FDA did studies on their drugs and they had drugs that were up to 20 years old and still 100% potent, but we can't recommend people take them, either professionally or ethically."
Pharmacists and doctors say how medications are stored is a big factor in their longevity.
Dr. Hardy says, "When your medication is at a pharmacy, it's stored according to proper standards. Once you put it in a bathroom, it might be exposed to heat and humidity." She says, "Often we put it places where it's exposed to light so that too can affect the chemical makeup of the medication."
"Get these pills out of the house," says Stephen Azzam, who leads the Drug Enforcement Administration's New Orleans division.
With an opioid crisis gripping the country, the DEA doesn't mince words about keeping expired medication around the house. Azzam says even if it's expired as an opioid, somebody can get their hands on it.
"And it gives a second life to it doesn't it?" asks Azzam. "If we can get it out of the house, we're removing that temptation for a family member or a friend who may have an addiction problem."
That's why the DEA sponsors two drug take back days a year, where thousands of pounds of unwanted or expired drugs are thrown away, no questions asked.
Pharmacies are required by law to remove expired medicine from their shelves and they can sometimes get a credit from drug manufacturers.
"There's planned obsolescence there to keep the stock rotating and keep you buying more things," Spitale says. "It's big money."
On rare occasions, pharmaceutical companies will extend the expiration dates on a product because there's a shortage.
But if you're debating doing that, experts say do your homework.
"You want to put your safety first, so if it's a minor illness you may be able to chance it," says Dr. Hardy. "If you have a question about is it safe for me to take, you can always phone your doctor and you can check with your pharmacist."