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When Do OTC Meds Really Go Bad?

You’ve got a headache, and your Tylenol is past its expiration date…do you dare take it? “Expiration dates on over-the-counter meds tell you how much potency they still have,” says Harold Silverman, Pharm.D., author of The Pill Book ($5.41, Amazon). “If you’ve kept your meds in a cool, dark place, many will be safe for a time.” Here’s what to know

Aches and pains?

You can reach for Tylenol, Advil, and Motrin for up to three months past expiration, but don’t expect them to work as well. “Active ingredients slowly degrade, making them less potent,” explains Silverman.

Tip: Take it with a cup of coffee. You’ll get 40 percent more pain relief, according to research from New York University. Caffeine speeds the medication into your bloodstream, plus it’s a mild analgesic, so it’s like taking two painkillers at once.

No-med Sleep Aid

Can’t drift off? Picture neutral objects, like a lemon and a canoe, for eight seconds each. Canadian research shows this simple technique, called serial diverse imagining, helps you get deeper sleep by steering you away from anxious thoughts.

Heartburn flare?

Tums and Rolaids work up to two years past expiration. “Chewable calcium carbonate– based antacids like these don’t break down like other meds,” Silverman says. However, Prilosec, Prevacid, and other OTC proton-pump inhibitors used for a serious chronic condition (gastroesophageal reflux disease) are better to take new.


You can safely use OTC cough remedies such as Mucinex and Dayquil to thin mucus for a “wet” cough and quiet a “dry” cough for up to three months past expiration, assures Silverman. “The chemicals in these medicines — dextromethorphan (a cough suppressant) and guaifenesin (an expectorant) — don’t degrade very quickly.”

Trouble sleeping?

Whether you take a natural remedy like melatonin or an antihistamine sleep aid such as Unisom, it’s best to replace once it’s three months past its expiration, urges Silverman. “It may still deliver active ingredients, but it will likely be less effective.”

This article originally appeared in our print magazine.

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