Are expired medications safe to consume? Here’s what experts say

Click to play video: 'Health experts offer advice for families during kids’ medication shortage'
Health experts offer advice for families during kids’ medication shortage
Ottawa has announced new shipments of children’s pain medication will soon be on the way. But for those families who need it now, health experts have some tips. Caryn Lieberman reports – Nov 17, 2022

Canadians should avoid stockpiling and consuming expired medication, some experts say, as drug shortages continue to trouble the country.

“The advice is always if you have expired medications, you should dispose of them rather than use them. The real reason for this is that with medications, the expiry date is really the date that you can guarantee that the specific dose (on the bottle) is the dose you can expect to receive (benefits for) when you take it,” Kelly Grindrod, associate professor of pharmacy at the University of Waterloo, told Global News.

Grindrod said this advice applies to all expired drugs, whether in tablet or liquid form.

However, if someone does consume expired medication by accident, Grindrod clarifies that it won’t pose any serious risk or danger to the body. It will only mean that they are not getting the dose they’re hoping to get for their ailment.

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“The biggest risk is that they’re not going to be effective,” Grindrod said.

“If you’ve done this and found out afterward that the bottle was expired, I’m not sure I’d worry about that. But that doesn’t mean … go ahead and do it.”

Grindrod explains that drugs degrade over time, and some degrade faster than others, depending on what kind of medication it is and if it was stored in a hot or humid place — that can make it degrade sooner than usual.

“So instead of getting a dose (worth) of, say, 300 milligrams … you might only get 200 milligrams of the (product’s effectiveness) or 150 milligrams. … So, (they) are less likely to be effective,” she said.

Now, does that mean there would be no side effects from consuming expired medications? Grindrod said she’s “not sure” that can be said.

“The worry is more that it will have lost its potency than that it will be harmful,” she said.

Click to play video: 'Additional Kids Cold/Flu Medication Coming to Canada'
Additional Kids Cold/Flu Medication Coming to Canada

Canadians have been impacted by worsening supply problems of over-the-counter and prescription drugs, with industry experts saying there is a growing list of medications that are running low or out of stock, from children’s allergy medication, adult cough and cold syrups to eye drops and even some oral antibiotics.

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Pam Kennedy, pharmacist and owner of Bridgewater Guardian Pharmacy in Nova Scotia, told The Canadian Press earlier this week that as much as 30 per cent of prescription drugs are now on back order, with some brands showing a shortage extending into early 2023.

“I don’t think there’s been a liquid Buckley’s available for months,” Kennedy said of a popular cough syrup brand. “The cough and colds shortage has been problematic.”

However, Grindrod said the shortages being reported across the country shouldn’t make Canadians, especially parents, feel too anxious, noting that there is going to be relief in the supply chain.

“We are being told that there is a product being imported right now that is going to go to community pharmacies across the country. … So, we do expect these products to be back on the shelves shortly,” she said.

Health Canada announced Monday that new shipments of children’s pain medication will be available for retail purchase in the coming weeks.

READ MORE: Health Canada flags inflated prices of kid’s pain medicine on Amazon amid shortage

These shipments are the latest in efforts from the federal government to secure additional supplies of children’s pain medications, due to a shortage of both children’s acetaminophen and ibuprofen that has been ongoing since the summer.

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Grindrod said one of the biggest problems driving supply chain issues is that since summer, the fear that there will be a lack of supply has been leading to a lot of stockpiling of medications in Canada.

“You might be buying three bottles of something. … Don’t do that. … It just contributes to the problems and you’re just going to end up with a bunch of expired products,” Grindrod said.

Click to play video: 'Health Canada official cites ‘confidential’ agreements when asked how many pediatric meds coming into Canada'
Health Canada official cites ‘confidential’ agreements when asked how many pediatric meds coming into Canada

Dr. Dina Kulik, a pediatrician and founder of Kidcrew, said all medications lose their potency over time.

“That’s the biggest risk. Rarely do medications become dangerous or potentially toxic if they’re expired. Much more common is that they don’t work as well,” she said, advising people to get rid of expired medications.

Kulik also said that despite the shortage, there are still a lot of options when it comes to medication that is over-the-counter in many pharmacies.

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“If you’re not able to access the medication that you typically use for your child, it is a good idea to touch base with your pharmacist,” Kulik said.

“They may have alternative options for you, such as crushing adult pills depending on your child’s weight and health conditions, using chewables,  suppositories, or other alternatives like compounded medications,” she added.

READ MORE: How much kids’ pain medicine is coming to Canada? Officials mum, but say details coming

However, parents shouldn’t be doing this on their own, Grindrod said.

A pharmacist might use an adult version of the medication that might be in shortage and adjust the dose based on the child’s weight to make it safe, she said.

“Don’t look this up online and figure it out but go talk to a pharmacist or talk to your family doctor and they will help you. We can treat children … even if we have this shortage of children’s products, it’s a little bit more work, but we can do it,” she said.

When it comes to adults, however, it’s a lot easier. Grindrod said that an adult can go to a store and just pick up a new bottle or ask a pharmacist for an alternative, but stresses against using expired products.

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“Don’t take expired products. We’re not sure they’re going to work. Instead, your best bet is to talk to your healthcare provider,” Grindrod said.

— with files from The Canadian Press and Global News’ Teresa Wright 

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