You might think of expiration dates as mainly applying to food and drinks, but the truth is they can be found on a wide range of products. For example, most soaps, conditioners, moisturisers and more will have information on the packaging telling you how long you should continue to use it after opening the container. Medications, including contraceptive pills, have expiration dates too, and they’re not to be ignored.
Does the pill go out of date?
All pills and tablets should have an expiration date somewhere on the packaging. If you’re struggling to find it, it’s best to ask a pharmacist’s advice, as it’s important information to be aware of. Medicines may be less effective or safe after the expiration date. For example, the Lovima® mini pill has a shelf life of three years.
It’s worth knowing that time isn’t the only thing that can affect the efficacy of your medication. You should be careful to store medicines according to the instructions on the packaging to avoid environmental conditions such as temperature, sunlight or humidity impacting the medications.
Expiration dates versus use by dates
The pill has a date that can usually be found on the cardboard box and on the individual blister packs within. It might be next to ‘expiry’, ‘expiry date’, ‘EXP’ or similar. This date will usually come in the form of a month and year - this means the pills are safe to take until the end of the stated month. For example, if the month was December, the last date you should take those pills would be December 31st.
Sometimes, instead of an expiration date, your medication will come with a ‘use by’ date. This is slightly different than an expiration date, as it means you should only take the medication up to the beginning of the stated month. For example, if the month was December, the last date you should use the medication would be November 30th.
Always double check whether your medication has an expiration date or a use by date before taking it to ensure you’re not taking out of date medication.
What happens if you take an out of date pill?
Taking an out of date pill may be harmful to your health, as some medications can break down over time. There is also a risk of bacterial growth or changes to the chemical makeup of the medication. If you have taken an expired pill and feel unwell, seek medical attention. It’s best to bring the medication with you, if possible, as this can help a doctor to determine if the expired pill is the cause of your symptoms.
Additionally, expired medications may not achieve the purpose they are intended for. In the case of contraceptive pills, this means you may be at a greater risk of pregnancy if you have sex without additional protection. Using a barrier contraceptive such as condoms for the next seven days may be needed to help to protect you in the first few days of starting the pill again depending on when you took the expired pill. This is because the hormones in the pill usually stay in the body for only a short time, which is why taking the pill at the same time each day is important. For further information on how to start taking the pill after a break or when a pill has been missed see the patient information leaflet provided in the box or speak to a pharmacist or doctor.
Avoiding expired pills
Accidents can happen, and it’s not always possible to avoid them. However, there are things you can do to make it less likely that your pills will expire before you get to use them.
The first thing to do is to take stock of the pills you currently have. Check the expiration dates on each one and make sure none of them are already out of date. If they are, the next section explains how to properly dispose of them. If all your pills are in date, order your spare packs so that the earliest date is first. This way, when you next need to start a new pack, it should be the one with the shortest remaining time to use it.
Another thing you could try is to set up notifications to remind you when a medication is due to expire. This is generally more useful for medicines you take on an ‘as needed’ basis, but can also be useful for contraceptive pills if they are short-dated and you’re concerned you might not use them in time. Setting up a calendar notification or reminder can give you a nudge when it’s time to stop using a certain medication so you’re less likely to use it when it’s expired.
Disposing of expired pills
Once the expiration or use by date for your pills has passed, you should dispose of them. However, it is important not to put them in your household rubbish or flush them down the toilet - instead, you can take them to your local pharmacy. Pharmacies have procedures in place for disposing of medications that ensure it is done in a safe and effective way.
Failing to dispose of your expired medications correctly could be harmful both to humans and wildlife. For example, etonogestrel, an ingredient in the Lovima® mini pill, poses a risk to fish. Taking your expired pills to a pharmacy instead of flushing them down the toilet or simply binning them can help to protect the environment.