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No, you shouldn't take expired cold medicine

Once an expiration date has passed, expired cold medicine may lose its effectiveness and there is no guarantee that it will be safe to use.

Have you checked your medicine cabinet lately? A woman on Twitter whose son was sick claims her mom loaned her the same Vicks VapoRub she used on her when she was growing up. She shared a photo of the Vicks tub and said its expiration date was January 1987. 

As of Oct. 1, the tweet has garnered over 20,000 retweets and 331,000 likes. In a follow-up tweet, the woman said she did use the vintage Vicks on her son, and claimed it did help. 

Expired cold medicine questions are a common topic on online message boards as well, with several Reddit threads claiming it’s safe to take expired pills or liquid medicine

THE QUESTION

Should you take expired cold medicine? 

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is false.

No, you shouldn't take expired cold medicine.

WHAT WE FOUND

In 1979, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began requiring an expiration date on prescription and over-the-counter medication. The FDA says using expired medicine is risky and could be harmful to a person’s health, depending on what type of medication it is. 

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

According to the National Capital Poison Center, there are many drugs that are probably effective after their expiration date has passed, but most aren’t tested beyond then to be sure. 

“When we are thinking about medication safety, it is always best to take medications that are not expired,” said Dr. Brooke Hudspeth, the chief practice officer at the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy. “What that expiration date tells us is how long the medications are good to take. After that expiration date, we can't be confident that those medications will have their full potency, or be able to work as well to treat the condition that we're trying to treat.”

Dr. John Beckner, the senior director of strategic initiatives at the National Community Pharmacists Association, told VERIFY most expired cough and cold products may maintain their labeled concentrations for at least a year or more but he says they may lose their effectiveness.

“I think all of these products, whether they're liquid or tablet or capsule or gel caps, are probably OK to use anywhere from six months to a year, and they're not going to be harmful. They may not be as effective,” said Dr. Beckner.  

On its website, Vicks VapoRub says people should not use their product beyond the expiration date listed on its packaging, backing the FDA’s warning. According to Dr. Beckner, medicated ointments, like Vicks, “may tend to last a little bit longer just because of how it's formulated,” but says if it no longer looks or smells like it should, you should throw it out. 

“If you've got an ointment and you pretty much know what it’s supposed to smell like and if it doesn't smell like it's supposed to well, then you probably shouldn't be using it,” said Dr. Beckner.

Dr. Beckner and Dr. Hudspeth recommend talking to a pharmacist about any questions you may have about using a medication, expired or not. Both doctors, along with the National Capital Poison Center, say you should also clean out your medicine cabinet from time to time. 

“Drugs kept for a long time may deteriorate if they are not stored properly. This is especially important for drugs like heart medicines, insulin, and antibiotics,” the National Capital Poison Center warns. “Insulin needs to be refrigerated. Most other medicines should be stored at room temperature. Warm, humid places like bathrooms and kitchens usually are not ideal.”

If you’re wondering what to do with the expired medication in your medicine cabinet, the FDA says the best way to safely dispose of most types of unused or expired medication is to drop it off at a drug take-back site, location, or program as soon as possible.

More from VERIFY: Yes, there is a nationwide blood shortage but it's not related to COVID vaccines

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