Can tea go bad and make you sick?

Tea is a beloved beverage for many, offering both delicious flavor and health benefits. However, there are some important safety considerations when it comes to storing and consuming tea. Tea can go bad under certain conditions, and drinking spoiled tea could potentially make you sick. Understanding proper tea storage and the signs of bad tea can help you avoid any risks.

Can tea go bad?

Yes, tea can expire and go bad over time. The shelf life of tea depends on several factors:

  • Tea type – Green and white teas expire more quickly than black tea.
  • Leaf cut – Finely cut tea leaves lose flavor faster than full loose leaf tea.
  • Storage conditions – Heat, light, air exposure speed up expiration.
  • Packaging – Tea stored in paper bags or cardboard boxes expires faster than tea in airtight packaging.

Properly stored, sealed loose leaf tea or tea bags can last up to 2 years or longer before losing flavor. However, tea exposed to oxygen, moisture, heat or light will stale faster, usually in a matter of months. Signs that your tea has gone bad include faded color, lack of aroma, musty odor, and dull or harsh flavor.

What causes tea to go bad?

There are four key factors that can cause tea leaves to degrade in quality and expire faster:


Exposure to oxygen can cause tea to oxidize, resulting in faded color and loss of flavor. This happens more quickly with delicate green and white teas. Keeping tea in airtight packaging prevents excess air from reaching the tea leaves.


Moisture causes tea leaves to become moldy or develop off odors and tastes. Storing tea in the refrigerator or freezer can introduce unwanted moisture. The ideal storage place is somewhere cool, dark and dry.


Heat accelerates the staling process in tea. High temperatures degrade the aromatic compounds, drying out the tea leaves. Avoid storing tea near hot appliances, in direct sunlight or in hot vehicles.


Direct sunlight and UV light can also damage tea leaves. Certain wavelengths can break down the compounds responsible for flavor and health benefits. Store tea in opaque, UV protected containers.

How long does tea last?

With proper storage, here is the typical shelf life for different types of tea:

Tea Type Shelf Life
Green tea 6-12 months
White tea 6-12 months
Oolong tea 1-2 years
Black tea 1-2 years
Pu-erh tea 2+ years

Tea stored in less than ideal conditions will expire faster. Heat, light exposure, air exposure and moisture are all factors that speed up how quickly tea deteriorates. Loose leaf tea lasts longer than bagged tea. Finely cut tea leaves lose flavor sooner than full loose leaf tea.

How to properly store tea

Follow these tips for ideal tea storage:

  • Air-tight containers – Store tea in sealed opaque canisters, jars or pouches with an airtight seal.
  • Cool & dry place – Keep tea somewhere climate controlled, between 50-80°F with low humidity.
  • No sunlight – Ensure tea is not exposed to direct light or UV rays which accelerate staling.
  • Limited oxygen – Avoid frequent opening/closing of storage container so tea isn’t exposed to excessive air.
  • Shelf life by type – Drink green and white teas within 1 year. Oolong, black and pu-erh teas may last 2 years.

With airtight, opaque storage away from heat, moisture and light, most quality teas can stay fresh for up to 2 years. However, delicate green and white teas are best consumed within 1 year for optimum flavor.

What happens if you drink expired tea?

Consuming spoiled, expired tea may cause negative health effects. The main risks include:

Foodborne Illness

Out of date tea may grow mold, bacteria or other pathogens that can cause illnesses if consumed. Drinking old tea with an off smell, taste or appearance could lead to toxic ingestion of contaminants.

Degraded Nutrients

As tea deteriorates with age, beneficial antioxidants like polyphenols and catechins break down. This reduces the health value of old tea, providing less dietary antioxidants.

Toxic Compounds

Tea that is not stored properly can develop harmful chemicals as the leaves break down. This includes benzene, a cancer-causing compound found in degraded teas.

Upset Stomach

Drinking tea that has gone rancid or developed mold puts you at risk for nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and other gastric distress from accidental poisoning.

The mold that grows on bad tea is not necessarily the potentially fatal aflatoxin, but all mold ingestion carries some level of risk and should be avoided.

How to tell if tea has gone bad

Watch for these common signs that your tea is past its prime or has spoiled entirely:

Altered Color

The tea leaves appear faded or dull. Fresh tea leaves have vibrant, uniform colors. Green tea leaves look olive green. Black tea is very dark brown. Discoloration is a red flag.

Lack of Aroma

Tea that is freshly opened from a sealed package will have a strong, pronounced aroma. Stale or moldy tea smells musty, like paper or cardboard. A missing scent means the tea is no longer good.

Unpleasant Smell

Old tea gives off odd odors resembling damp paper, old vegetables, grass or hay. These “off” smells indicate the tea has spoiled and should not be consumed.


The presence of mold, usually white or blue-green in color, is a sure sign expired tea has developed harmful microbes and toxins. Discard immediately.

Bitter or Harsh Taste

Instead of a smooth, balanced flavor, spoiled tea tastes harsh, bitter and unpleasant. Stale tea leaves produce an unappealing, astringent brew.

Trust your senses – if old tea smells, looks or tastes “off” in any way compared to fresh tea, the safest option is to throw it out and replace it.

Does refrigerating tea make it last longer?

Refrigerating tea is controversial. Some advise against it, as the condensation can damage tea leaves. However others recommend chilling tea to extend shelf life. Here are the pros and cons of storing tea in the fridge:


  • Slows down deterioration from heat exposure.
  • Inhibits microbial growth from condensation moisture.
  • Blocks light exposure in a cold, dark space.
  • Can effectively prolong life of delicate green and white teas.


  • Excess moisture introduces risk of mold.
  • Fluctuating fridge temperatures can degrade leaves.
  • Absorbs aromas and flavors from other foods.
  • Cold dulls fragrance and alters flavor when brewed.

The verdict? Short term refrigeration of up to 1 month may help extend the life of green and white teas. For long term storage, the pantry or cupboard is best. Be sure to let refrigerated tea come fully to room temperature before brewing.

Does freezing tea make it last longer?

Freezing is controversial too, though also used by some tea drinkers to halt the aging process. Here are the potential benefits and drawbacks:


  • Halts oxidation and staling at frozen temperatures.
  • Useful for buying tea in bulk and freezing excess.
  • Allows access to seasonal or limited teas year-round.


  • Moisture damage from condensation when thawing.
  • Risk of contaminated ice crystals forming.
  • Can mute aroma and alter flavor.
  • Leaves become brittle, potentially breaking from expansion.

For short term freezing of 1-2 months, air-tight freezer bags work best. Let tea fully reach room temperature before opening after freezing. But long term freezing is not recommended for preserving tea quality.

How to revive stale tea

If your tea is past peak freshness but not fully expired, try these tricks to revive the leaves:

  • Air out – Remove tea from packaging and let it breathe uncovered for 1-2 days.
  • Bake – Place leaves on a baking sheet at 200°F for 15 minutes to gently dry and reawaken aroma.
  • Steam – Pour hot water over tea then cover for 5-7 minutes so steam rehydrates dried leaves.
  • Season – Add spices like cinnamon sticks, ginger root or citrus peels to boost flavor.

However, these methods cannot reverse actual spoilage or make drinking expired tea completely safe. When in doubt, do not consume tea beyond its prime.

How to buy fresh tea

Selecting high quality tea at peak freshness ensures you get the most antioxidants and the best tasting cup of tea. Follow these tips when tea shopping:

  • Check expiration or best by dates.
  • Choose reputable tea sellers with high turnover.
  • Buy small quantities more often for better freshness.
  • Look for vacuum sealed or nitrogen flushed packages.
  • Avoid pre-ground tea dust which stales rapidly.
  • Select Valerian or foil lined boxes over paper packaging.
  • Buy whole leaf tea over broken leaves or fannings.

When possible, visit tea specialty shops selling tea from the current season’s harvest for maximum freshness and flavor.

Can expired tea make you sick?

Yes, drinking bad, moldy, expired tea can make you sick. The possible health effects include:

  • Food poisoning – From mold, bacteria contamination leading to vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration.
  • Toxicity – Chemical changes create benzene, a carcinogen, and other toxins that have accumulated.
  • Allergic reaction – Mold spores trigger asthmatic response in sensitive individuals.
  • Liver damage – Aflatoxin mold toxin causes liver injury especially when concentrated in expired tea.

Always err on the side of caution and throw away expired, foul smelling or moldy tea. Do not take a chance on brewing or tasting tea that is past its prime.


Like any beverage, tea is perishable and has a limited life span. Properly stored tea can stay enjoyable up to 2 years or longer before going bad. But tea exposed to oxygen, light, heat and moisture will stale much faster. Watch for warning signs of spoilage like faded color, musty smells and unappealing flavors. Consuming expired tea with mold or bacteria can cause illness, so avoid taking any risks brewing tea past its freshness date. Follow proper storage methods and pay attention to shelf life by type to ensure your daily cuppa remains safe and tasty.

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