Is Expired NyQuil Safe?

In our latest question and answer, the pharmacist discusses whether or not it is safe to use expired NyQuil.

Question

I was looking around in my medicine cabinet last night for something to help with my cough and I found an old bottle of NyQuil. It is expired, but not by much. Is it still okay to take?

Asked by Nicole On Apr 16, 2021

Answered by
Medical Content Reviewed By HelloPharmacist Staff

On Apr 16, 2021

Key points

  • In general, using expired medications should be avoided as they may not be as potent or effective as they once were
  • Expired NyQuil has not been shown to degrade into harmful components, but expired products may have lost potency over time
  • As NyQuil is relatively inexpensive, it is recommended to replace any expired product with an in-date one

In a general sense, it is not recommended to take any medication past the listed manufacturer expiration date, and this includes NyQuil.

Now, it's extremely uncommon that an expired medication will 'go bad' and cause physical harm and there are no reports (at least that I could find) of expired NyQuil causing harm. However, there certainly is a chance that it will have lost potency over time, making it less effective.

Expired Medications

Taking a medication that has lost potency could, of course, have serious consequences. Let's say you take blood pressure medication. If it doesn't work as well as it should, you're putting yourself at risk for negative outcomes (i.e high blood pressure).

For a medication like NyQuil, if it has lost potency over time, you may find that it doesn't relieve your symptoms (e.g. coughing, runny nose) as well as an in-date product. Certainly not as dangerous as expired blood pressure medication, but it still isn't ideal.

In most cases, if you are able to replace your expired medication, you should. This is certainly the case for a drug like NyQuil, which is readily available.

With most expired medications, including NyQuil, it is nearly impossible to tell if they have lost potency over time without some sort of testing or analysis. Most drugs show no outward signs (with some exceptions, like aspirin).

How Are Expiration Dates Determined?

This all leads to the question of how expiration dates are actually determined in the first place.

A manufacturer for a given drug will perform stability tests on their products so can determine the appropriate expiration date.

These stability tests will be performed for a finite time period, usually two to three years. After this period of time, there isn't any data to indicate whether or not the drug is stable. In other words, the expiration is marked for however long the manufacturer has data for.

While manufacturers could theoretically do stability tests for longer periods of time, they don't really have any financial incentive to do so.

In addition, most medication is consumed within a few years' time anyway, so longer tests are unnecessary.

Going Bad?

Aside from the fact that medication can degrade and lose potency over time (making them less effective), it is important to keep in mind that some expired medication could be outright dangerous to take. Now, it is uncommon that a drug would degrade into harmful components, as mentioned earlier. However, some drugs do undergo noticeable changes.

If you have ever opened a bottle of aspirin long past its expiration date, you may notice it smells like vinegar. This is due to the aspirin (salicylic acid) breaking down and producing acetic acid (vinegar). Overall though, it would be extremely rare for an expired medication to degrade into components that are actually harmful to you.

The bigger concern is a loss in overall effectiveness and contamination. While a slight loss in effectiveness may not be a big deal for a drug like NyQuil, there may be significant consequences with other drugs.

I used the example of a blood pressure medication above, with another example being antibiotics. If you are taking one for an infection and it is not as potent as it once was...there is a risk that it may not completely eradicate your infection, putting you at risk for complications.

As an additional point, some medications (generally liquid-based) are at risk of becoming contaminated with bacterial growth as preservatives (used to limit bacterial growth) are only effective for so long.

The takeaway point here is that once your medication is past the listed expiration date, you don't know if it will be safe to take, or as effective as it once was.

Final Words

Having said all of the above, it is important to point out that data from a number of studies suggest that it takes a significant amount of time for a drug to actually degrade to the point where it has lost a large percentage of its original potency.

One of the largest studies commissioned regarding medication expiration dates was done in the 1980s and concerned the testing of medication stockpiles used by the military. They found that the vast majority of drugs still had around 70-80% potency after 10 years if stored in the original container! This led to the creation of the FDA Shelf Life Extension Program (SLEP).

Going back to expired Nyquil, it most likely is safe in regard to it not causing harmful side effects.

It will also probably provide a similar level of effectiveness to non-expired products since it is unlikely to be significantly degraded but, as discussed in the sections above, there is just no way to definitively know. Since Nyquil is available over the counter and is relatively inexpensive, it makes more sense to buy a non-expired replacement.

References

  • Gold Standard, Inc. NyQuil Monograph, Clinical Pharmacology
  • Drugs past their expiration date, PubMed
  • Don’t Be Tempted to Use Expired Medicines, FDA
  • Expiration Dating and Stability Testing for Human Drug Products, FDA
  • Expiration Dating Extension, FDA

About the Pharmacist

Dr. Brian Staiger, PharmD

Dr. Brian has been practicing pharmacy for over 11 years and has wide-ranging experiences in many different areas of the profession. From retail, clinical and administrative responsibilities, he's your knowledgeable and go-to source for all your pharmacy and medication related questions!

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