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Can You Take Expired Antibiotics

by Dan Hughes
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Can You Take Expired Antibiotics

Can You Take Expired Antibiotics

When you’re sick with a cold or flu, taking an over-the-counter medication like Tylenol may seem like a good idea. But if it’s been around for decades, chances are it contains ingredients that have long since gone extinct thanks to bacteria known as superbugs.
Superbugs are becoming increasingly common because our antibiotics don’t kill them fast enough. They become resistant to drugs and multiply so much faster than normal bugs that they pose a real threat to public health.
Experts say we should be able to stop this trend by better educating doctors on how best to prescribe antibiotics and what to do when patients take expired meds. In most cases, according to a study published in August 2017 in The Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, those who took expired antibiotics suffered from milder symptoms compared to people who didn’t use the drugs. Still, experts worry about the potential for severe harm.
“The problem here isn’t just that we’re using these old medicines,” says Dr. David Gellinger, associate professor of clinical pharmacy practice at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “It’s also the fact that some of these drugs aren’t even active anymore.”
According to a 2016 report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than two million Americans were hospitalized due to drug poisoning in 2015. More than half of all hospitalizations resulted from adverse reactions to prescription drugs; many of which could’ve been prevented had the patient simply taken their pills as directed.
In other words, while side effects might not present themselves immediately after a person takes a pill, the drug can still cause problems days later — especially if its effectiveness started waning over time. That’s why older drugs are often considered less effective today than they once were.
Some Drugs Last Longer Than Others
Most antibiotics work against bacteria. When used properly, the medicine kills off the bad guys before any damage can occur. However, bacteria quickly develop ways to resist certain types of antibiotics. And although scientists continue to discover new ones, most antibiotics currently available on the market come from only three classes of compounds called tetracyclines, macrolides, and quinolones. These agents target different areas of microorganisms’ DNA but eventually bacteria learn to adapt. Some even mutate into forms that are immune to the medicine altogether.
And unlike newer drugs, which typically last several weeks after a single dose, older antibiotics usually wear down pretty quickly. So if you use one when you shouldn’t, your doctor may need to give you another prescription months later — and possibly a second round of treatment.
This makes sense considering that antibiotics rarely work well against viruses such as influenza. And unfortunately, seasonal flu tends to reemerge every year. In fact, the CDC estimates that up to 90 percent of people get infected each season. This means that the first shot doesn’t always protect us from getting sick again.
So Who Can Use Them?
That said, there are exceptions to the rule. For example, penicillin was discovered back in 1928 and remains one of the world’s most popular antibiotics today. Because it works so effectively against a variety of diseases, it’s recommended for treating everything from strep throat to meningitis.
However, penicillin is also widely used by farmers to control fungus on crops and livestock. It’s also frequently given to pets to treat yeast infections and ringworm. Although penicillin is still effective today, a lot of modern strains produce enzymes that break down the compound. As a result, you’ll need to keep refilling prescriptions regularly, and sometimes indefinitely.
Other examples of effective antibiotics include vancomycin, cephalosporins and sulfonamides.
Even though they’re commonly prescribed, not everyone knows exactly where to find them. According to the National Library of Medicine, some generic versions of ciprofloxacin, an antibacterial agent used to fight urinary tract and respiratory infections, are harder to find in stores. And the same goes for amoxicillin clavulanate potassium, which treats ear infections and tonsillitis.
To make matters worse, there are lots of counterfeit products out there that look identical to brand name medications. Unfortunately, they contain very little, if anything, of the original substance. Doctors are becoming adept at spotting fakes, but some people may unwittingly end up consuming something harmful instead.
How Do I Know Which One To Buy?
As far as prescriptions go, the easiest way to tell whether a particular medicine is still potent is to check its packaging. If you see the word “generic” next to the name, then it’s likely the product is made under license by a company that produces copies of brand name drugs. Generic drugs are cheaper than originals, but they don’t necessarily offer the same quality.
If you want to know if a specific type of antibiotic is still working, ask your pharmacist. He or she can direct you toward generics that are guaranteed to remain potent — regardless of expiration dates — without having to pay extra.
But if you’re looking for a broad spectrum antibiotic but don’t know where to start, consider speaking with a physician who specializes in infectious disease. Chances are high he or she will know which kind offers the greatest protection against various germs.
Be aware that some pharmacies sell outdated medications. If you think yours does, contact your local board of health directly. They can help inform you about which products should be avoided.
For instance, the U.S. Food Drug Administration recently announced plans to issue warning letters to companies that distribute expired medications. Such measures are meant to alert consumers about potentially dangerous products before they enter the marketplace.
A Final Word On Expiration Dates
While there are certainly benefits to buying generic alternatives, it’s important to remember that expiration dates are set by manufacturers based on their own standards. According to the FDA, the agency hasn’t yet found evidence that suggests extended exposure to sunlight significantly affects the potency of medications.
Also, it’s worth pointing out that a lot of expired meds wind up being thrown away anyway. We tend to throw away plenty of things every day that never actually expire. And, as mentioned earlier, the vast majority of expired meds wind up sitting in landfills.

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