You have more than likely heard many warnings about not taking pills past the expiration date, but you’ve probably also wondered what happens when you take expired pills. Why the warnings? What are the reasons you’re not supposed to take expired pills?

There are common reasons many people take expired pills even when they’ve heard warnings against it. One reason is because of negligence, but it also may be due to the high cost of prescription medicine, a lack of insurance, or they simply aren’t educated on reasons why they shouldn’t.

Understanding the Importance of Expiration Dates

Before you can really understand what happens when you take expired pills, you should know why these dates or warnings are put on both prescription and non-prescription medicines.

First, all drugs have unique formulations that outline both their active and inactive ingredients. These formulations are how medicines are effective in treating certain diseases, conditions, and symptoms. When a drug is developed, manufacturers outline something called the shelf-life. Drug shelf-life refers to the length of time a drug can be used without deterioration. This includes looking at effectiveness and safety within a given time period.

The FDA started requiring that expiration dates be issued for both prescription and over-the-counter drugs in the late 1970s. When you use a medicine within its outlined shelf life, and of course as directed, it will maintain its maximum effectiveness and safety level. Another word for effectiveness in this context is efficacy. This indicates the ability of a drug to create a certain result. The higher the efficacy level of a drug, the better the results. If you take a drug that isn’t at its maximum efficacy level, it can lead to a lack of treatment regarding symptoms for which the drugwas prescribed.

Safety Issues of Expired Drugs

Along with how well a drug will work, something else to consider within the context of medication expiration is its safety. The chemical and physical elements of a drug can change over time, which can lead to safety issues. There are often physical signs of these changes, such as discoloration of an expired medicine.

It’s really difficult to determine whether or not an expired medicine is safe, so medical professionals recommend never using them, because of the risk of the unknown.


Prescription drug abuse is at an all-time high in the United States, and keeping unused and expired medicines such as Xanax or opioids, can lead to an increased likelihood of abuse of these drugs. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration warns that many abused prescription drugs that ultimately lead to accidental overdoses and addiction are obtained from friends and family.

Along with the risk of someone taking these unused drugs, when you have expired drugs around your home, there is the increased likelihood of children or pets taking them, which can lead to serious side effects or death.

Taking Expired Xanax

When people are wondering what happens when you take expired pills, one of the most common drugs they’re referring to is Xanax. With Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication, people will often give or sell their unused pills to friends or family members, and if they’re expired, it can be problematic.

First, prescription medicines like Xanax are only guaranteed safe and effective up to the expiration date that’s listed. Also, you should realize that anytime you’re taking Xanax without a prescription, that’s considered abuse of the drug. Of course, expired Xanax or any expired pills may still be safe, but they may not be, so it’s not a risk worth taking.

Disposing of Expired Pills

Rather than wondering what happens when you take expired pills, it’s often best to just go ahead and dispose of out-of-date drugs. The FDA recommends that you take certain steps to dispose of drugs properly when they expire:

  • The first is to check the label of the medication to determine if there are any specific instructions for disposal.
  • If there aren’t specific instructions, there are many government-operated drug take-back programs that are publicly available.
  • If you can’t find one of these programs in your area, you can throw medicine in the trash, but try to mix it with something like coffee grounds before throwing it away.
  • Also, before you do dispose of expired pills, check to make sure that the FDA doesn’t classify them as drugs that should be flushed rather than thrown out.

Summing Up

Ultimately, taking expired pills can be risky. With drugs like Xanax that have a high potential for abuse, it’s particularly important to dispose of expired pills, because you’re helping prevent potential abuse of the drug by the people around you who could have access to it. If you’re ever unsure about a medicine or what to do when it’s expired, contact your physician for advice.

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Editor – Renee Deveney
As a contributor for Advanced Recovery Systems, Renee Deveney is passionate about helping people struggling with substance use disorder. With a family history of addiction, Renee is committed to opening up a proactive dialogue about substance use and mental health. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Kevin Wandler, MD
Kevin Wandler holds multiple positions at Advanced Recovery Systems. In addition to being the founding and chief medical director at Advanced Recovery Systems, he is also the medical director at The Recovery Village Ridgefield and at The Recovery Village Palmer Lake. Read more
Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.