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Is It Safe to Use an Expired Inhaler?

Overview

Key points

  1. Albuterol sulfate inhalers expire one year after they’re issued.
  2. It may be safe to continue using an inhaler after it’s expired, but the medication may not be as effective.
  3. Proper storage can help extend the life of your inhaler.

Did you unearth a long-lost asthma inhaler between your couch cushions? Did an inhaler roll out from under your car seat after an undetermined amount of time? Did you find an inhaler that expired two months ago in your child’s backpack? If so, you may be wondering if it’s safe to use an expired inhaler. And if it’s not safe, how do you dispose of expired inhalers?

In short, it’s probably safe for you or your child to use the expired albuterol sulfate (Proventil, Ventolin) inhaler. But that answer includes some important warnings. While many medicines are still effective after their expiration dates, not all are. For that reason, it’s important to understand how expiration dates are determined and what can happen to those medicines once the expiration date has passed.

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Expiration dates

How are medicine expiration dates determined?

A medicine’s expiration date guarantees the medicine’s proper functioning if it’s stored correctly. An inhaler will still be safe and effective if used before the expiration date and if stored in proper conditions. Expiration dates for inhalers are often printed on the box or foil packaging. A secondary expiration date is frequently imprinted on the inhaler canister. If you can’t find the expiration date, call your pharmacist and ask when your last prescription was filled. If it has been more than a year, this inhaler is expired.

Some consumers suspect that expiration dates are a ploy by drug manufacturers to make people buy more drugs. That is not the case. Drug manufacturers are required to establish a timeframe during which their medicines are the most effective for consumer safety reasons. Thousands of pounds of medications go unused each year and must be destroyed. If dates were arbitrarily set, drug makers could save insurance companies, pharmacies, customers, and even themselves many millions of dollars each year by extending those dates.

Expiration dates are a good-faith effort by pharmaceutical companies to provide an effective product. From the moment a medicine is manufactured, the chemical compounds in it begin to change. Over time, these compounds can break down and be destroyed. Ideally, companies would have the time to let medications sit for several years while they test efficacy and safety. However, that would greatly increase the amount of time it takes for drugs to reach the market.

Companies stress test their medicines to determine expiration dates. To do that, they subject the medicine to typical scenarios in a sped-up timeframe. These tests include heat, humidity, and light. As medicines undergo these tests, they’re studied to see how long the compounds remain stable. The companies also check to see if the body can still correctly absorb the medicines after undergoing these scenarios.

How long does it take for albuterol sulfate inhalers to expire?

Most inhalers expire one year after they’re issued. After that date passes, the manufacturer cannot guarantee that the medicine will be safe or effective. Medicines breakdown at different rates, and much depends on how they’re stored.

If you’re in an urgent situation and need asthma medication in order to breathe, only use an expired inhaler as a supplement until you’re able to find an unexpired inhaler or you’re able to seek medical treatment.

Most inhalers are also safe to use up to one year after the expiration date. However, a lot depends on how the inhalers were stored during that year. Inhalers are often carried with people in purses or backpacks. That can mean they’re exposed to greater temperature or humidity changes. To be safe, you should dispose of an expired inhaler and request a new one from your doctor or pharmacy. After all, when it comes to breathing, you shouldn’t take risks with old medicine.

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Storage tips

Tips for proper storage

An inhaler’s expiration date takes into account typical use and storage. Manufacturers estimate the wide range of possible environmental changes these medicines may experience in their lifetime. These factors include exposure to heat, light, and humidity. The more an inhaler is exposed to these factors, the more quickly the medicine may degrade.

The following tips can help extend an inhaler’s shelf life and keep the medicine effective as long as possible. While these tips will not extend the expiration date, they may help ensure the medicine is safer longer, in the event you need to use it once it’s expired.

Store in a cool, dry place

Typical temperature storage should be between 59 to 86°F (15 to 30°C). If you leave your medicine in your car and the temperatures fall below 59°F (15°C) or above 86°F (30°C), talk with your pharmacist. One time may not be a concern, but the longer the inhaler is exposed to these extreme temperatures, the sooner it may begin degrading.

Protect the canister

The canister is under pressure, so if it is punctured, it may burst. If you’re storing an inhaler in your purse or backpack, keep it in a smaller padded bag to protect it.

Store it securely

Always replace the protective cap after you use your inhaler. If the cap is off, the canister could be damaged.

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Outlook

Outlook

Most inhalers expire one year after they’re issued, and many may still be effective up to one year after that expiration date. A lot depends on how well the inhalers are stored. Inhalers can be expensive, so it’s important to protect and store them correctly to get the longest life from them. When in doubt, dispose of your inhaler and purchase a new one. This way, you won’t risk not having the treatment when you need it.

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Safe disposal

Safe disposal of unused medication

Inhalers don’t have a universal disposal recommendation. Drug take-back programs may not accept inhalers because the canisters are often pressurized and will explode if incinerated. Before you toss your inhaler, read the manufacturer’s instructions. They may provide information on properly disposing of the device. If the instructions aren’t clear, contact your pharmacist or local waste disposal office for more information. You may be asked to recycle the inhaler, return it to a pharmacy, or simply throw it away.

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Q&A: Storage

Q&A: Inhaler storage and replacement

  • My child regularly stores their inhaler in their backpack, which spends hours in the hot sun. Should I replace it soon than a year?
  • When regularly exposed to extreme temperatures, the inhaler may become unreliable and will need to be replaced sooner than one year. This results in a guess as to how often the inhaler needs to be replaced. It would be reasonable to replace the inhaler as often as every three months to be sure it works when it’s needed.

    - Healthline Medical Team
  • Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.
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