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Are expired drugs overlooked?

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You have a throbbing headache and look in your medicine cabinet for something to take.  Oh thank goodness, you have got some painkillers in.  But you notice that they are 6 months out of date – would you still take them?  We have had it drilled into us that we should not use things past their expiry date: food, medicines and cosmetics alike. 


Pharmacists have a code of ethics to adhere to and one of these states that we are legally obliged to supply medicines that will stay within their expiry date for at least the length of the course.  For most medicines this will be 28 days and the expiry date on most medicines that we supply have an expiry date of up to 2 years.  But are we being too cautious?  What if all this medication that goes out of date and we have to dispose of is actually safe to use and the levels of the drug and its possible toxic breakdown products are actually still in safe limits.  In a time when the NHS needs to tighten its belt and save as much money as possible, could this be one way to do this?


Most expiry dates are worked out by accelerated degradation testing but is this the best method for working out an accurate expiry date?  Possibly not.  Medicines are stored in a vast range of conditions.  Pharmacies experience variations in temperature between night and day, patients store medicines in a variety of places so how can there be a single expiry date?  All these factors can affect the expiry date – possibly even reducing it.  Wouldn’t it be useful if we had the ability to test these drugs?  Surely the skills and knowledge of a pharmacist could be utilised here, especially when the job market is becoming saturated.  Openings could become available, allowing pharmacists to test medicines that have passed their expiry date.   These drugs could be tested to ascertain the levels of the drug, harmful breakdown products and other stability parameters allowing them to deem a medicinal product fit for use or not.  Surely a pharmacist has the skill set to do this – in years to come, if this was routine in community pharmacies or hospitals had labs to test drugs for levels of active ingredients, it would surely make those long chemistry and formulation lectures a lot more applicable!  The data is already out there regarding how to test for the drug and possible breakdown products as it would be part of the licensing legislation. 


So, should we be looking more closely at expired drugs instead of disposing of them?  It would certainly diversify the role of a pharmacist and save a pretty penny along the way.

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From: Tomorrow's pharmacist blog

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