Q: How important are the expiration dates on foods and medications? Am I at risk if I take pills or eat foods that are out of date?

A: I’ll tell you how important they are. Milk was on the list. I found the milk section, with only a little help from some other shopper. I found the size container I wanted and I took it off the shelf, checked out and went home expecting some praise. Well, it didn’t quite happen that way. When I got home my wife explained to me that the expiration date on the milk was the day before I purchased it. And, of course, when we opened it there was a funny smell.

Foods, even canned goods have expiration dates on them. Some are very hard to read and some are very hard to interpret, but they are there, somewhere. I’ll tell you this, in the future I will purchase no foods that are even close to their expiration dates. The trick is to take the food item you want from the back of the shelf because the store wants to sell the older food first and cleverly putting the newer foods in the back. Try not to let the store personnel see you do that. I think it does not make them happy. But, your wife will be happy. Your choice.

On the other hand, what I always knew about was expiration dates on medications. They are usually, but not always, printed somewhere on the label. They are usually a long way off from the date your pharmacist gives you the prescription. So, what is the answer to the question regarding use of out-of-date medications?

The issue generally revolves around taking long-term medication. Usually for some chronic illness. In these cases, prescriptions are usually written for approximately three months, with refills. Most “medication plans” call for this type of prescription. There is usually not enough time for the medication to become out of date since a fresh supply will be given every three months.

Now, if you stopped taking the long term medication before it was used up and then you want to start it again, you may have some that is out of date. If you check something like Google, I am sure you will find articles that suggest that most medications will still be OK to take after the expiration date, but the “rules are the rules.” I am not going to tell you to break the rules, and it is possible that the strength of the medication may decrease over long periods of time. Of course, the decision is yours, but remember, if you have taken the medication correctly in the first place, it shouldn’t happen very often that you have the opportunity to worry about it.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also remind you that it is really a bad decision to take other people’s medications, whether it is within or outside the expiration date. That is just asking for trouble.

Dr. Michael M. Warren is the Ashbel Smith professor of surgery at the University of Texas Medical Branch Division of Urology. Email him at michael.warren@galvnews.com.

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