Here’s Why You Should Actually Care About The Expiration Date On Your Birth Control Pills
Going through an entire bottle of Advil before it expires seems like an impossible feat. We've all been faced with the choice of taking slightly expired meds or forgoing them altogether. But while a less-effective dose of headache medication may leave you with a nagging pain in your skull, taking expired birth control could leave you with much more.
If you're on the Pill, you may end up with an extra emergency pack that you stash under the sink. You know, just in case something happens to the pack you're using and you're in desperate need of a spare pill. But just like any other medication, birth control pills have an expiration date. It's determined by the pharmaceutical company during testing of stability and effectiveness. The normal expiration is usually 12 months, Alexander Chiang, M.D., assistant clinical professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA says. But there are some qualifications. "This is based on the assumption that the medication is still in its original packaging and stored in the temperature listed on the box (usually room temp) and assuming normal ambient humidity," he says.
Limited studies — "mostly done by the U.S. government to prepare for future emergencies where expired medications may need to be distributed/used" — show that most medications are probably still effective for anywhere from one to five years after this expiration date, if they've been left in their original packaging.
These studies haven't been done specifically on birth control pills, but based on the results for similar pills, Chiang says you can extrapolate to some extent. "Since they're in a tablet form, it's likely they can still be effective shortly after the expiration date or longer," he says. "However, given the varying exposures of temperature, ambient humidity, sunlight, etc., there can be some degradation of the active hormones over time and so the manufacturer cannot guarantee effectiveness beyond its own testing period, which typically is 12 months."
Most drugs tested for effectiveness post-expiration date haven't proven to be dangerous. "These expired meds seem safe and non-toxic," Chiang notes. But there's really no definitive answer on how much the effectiveness will drop. If there's one medication you want to make sure is at its 100 percent most effective, it's your birth control.
What if you have no other alternative? "This is a tricky question," Chiang says. "If it's just recently expired and you have no other option, you could still take it, but probably should use a back up method, such as condoms." Better safe than accidentally pregnant.
Depending on the state laws where you live, you may be able to have the pharmacist refill your prescription without a request from your doctor. Some states will even allow you to get an extra one-month refill to have on hand for emergencies, Chiang says. And a handful of new apps and websites are making it possible to get an Rx without physically going to a doctor's office. If you've realized you're taking expired pills a little too late and want to make sure you're safe, emergency contraception like Plan B is available over the counter. Take it, and use it as an expensive reminder to refill your prescription ASAP.