Albuterol is a common asthma medication used to quickly provide relief from acute asthma attacks and prevent symptoms. It works by relaxing the muscles around the airways so that breathing becomes easier. Albuterol comes in an inhaler or nebulizer solution and is meant to provide fast, short-term asthma relief.
Like most medications, albuterol has an expiration date printed on the packaging. This indicates how long the manufacturer guarantees the effectiveness and safety of the drug when stored properly. However, expiration dates are often conservative estimates set by the manufacturer. In many cases, drugs retain their potency and remain safe to use for a time after the expiration date has passed – sometimes for years.
So how long past its expiration date can albuterol be used before losing effectiveness or becoming unsafe? Read on for more details.
What Happens When Medications Expire?
Expiration dates on medications are required by the FDA to indicate how long a drug’s potency and safety can be guaranteed when stored under ideal conditions. However, this does not mean a medication instantly becomes ineffective or dangerous after its expiration date. Instead, drug expiration dates are very conservative to account for variables in storage and handling.
In reality, most medications undergo a slow loss of potency over time. They slowly degrade until the amount of active ingredient falls below 90% of the original amount. This degradation continues steadily past the expiration date.
At some point far past the expiration date, the drug’s potency may decrease enough to impact its safety and effectiveness. However, this does not happen immediately after the expiration date.
For example, one study found that 90% of medications were still effective 15 years after their expiration date! Of course, the longer past its expiration a med is used, the greater the risk of reduced strength. But moderate extensions beyond the expiration date are generally considered safe.
FDA Studies on Expired Medications
The FDA conducted extensive testing on a variety of expired medications stored under ideal conditions. The drugs tested included those with short shelf lives, like antibiotics, as well as longer-lasting meds like analgesics.
Across the board, the majority of medications retained 90% potency or more for at least 1-2 years after expiration. About half remained potent 5-6 years past expiration. Many maintained much of their original potency for 10-15 years post-expiration.
The FDA concluded most medications stored properly retain potency years past their expiration dates. Of course, drugs degrade faster when stored in hot, humid, or bright conditions. But its findings confirm most medications retain the majority of their strength for some time after expiration.
How Long Past Expiration Can Albuterol Be Used?
Based on stability data and the FDA findings, most experts agree albuterol remains safe and effective for use at least one year past its printed expiration date – and likely longer.
One study directly tested albuterol inhalers beyond expiration. It found that albuterol maintained over 90% potency for up to 3 years after the expiration date when properly stored.
Another study tested four drugs commonly used to treat respiratory conditions. These included albuterol and ipratropium inhalation solutions (nebulizer medications). The researchers found both retained at least 88% of their labeled concentration for up to 3 years past expiration when unopened. Opened nebulizer solutions were good for up to 28 days after opening.
This data indicates that albuterol likely retains potency and remains safe for use for around 3 years past its printed expiration date as long as it is stored properly. Opened nebulizer solutions may be used up to 28 days after opening.
Maximizing Drug Stability
To extend the usable lifespan of albuterol past its expiration date:
– Store unopened albuterol inhalers and nebulizer solutions at room temperature away from excess heat, moisture, and light.
– Keep medications in their original labeled packaging until use.
– Check that the canister or vial contents do not appear discolored.
– Give nebulizer solutions a visual inspection and do not use if sediment or particles are present.
– Write the date opened on nebulizer solution packaging and discard opened vials after 28 days.
– Avoid storing medications in warm, humid places like bathrooms.
– Do not use albuterol from any inhaler that appears damaged or functions improperly. You can check the inhaler’s spray before use.
– Always prime inhalers before using for the first time or if not used in 2 weeks.
Following these steps can help albuterol maintain its original potency for as long as possible past the marked expiration date.
Watch for Reduced Effectiveness
The effectiveness of albuterol may slowly decrease over time after expiration. Watch for the following signs that your albuterol inhaler or nebulizer solution is losing potency:
– Increase in asthma symptoms or less relief from albuterol treatment
– Need to use albuterol more frequently
– Notable decrease in duration of effectiveness from each albuterol dose
– Faster than normal depletion of inhaler canisters
A gradual decline in albuterol’s effectiveness is normal. However, if you experience a significant drop-off in how well it works for you, it may be a sign that your particular inhaler or vial has surpassed its usable lifespan. Discard that supply and refill your albuterol prescription.
While albuterol appears chemically stable past its expiration date, no drug lasts forever. Over time, the concentration of active ingredients will eventually fall low enough to limit effectiveness. Degraded medications can also sometimes form potentially harmful breakdown chemicals.
To avoid issues, take the following precautions:
– No medication should be used more than 4 years past its printed expiration date. The risk of degradation rises over time. Even if an expired inhaler still releases puffs, the drug may have lost potency and become less effective or unpredictable by this point.
– Discard any discolored or damaged medications, or those packaged in containers that are cracked or damaged. Only use intact, normal-appearing inhalers and vials.
– Never use expired albuterol in an emergency asthma attack where you require fast, predictable relief. Only use unexpired albuterol in this situation.
– Consult your pharmacist or doctor before using any far expired medications, especially those more than 2 years past expiration. Do not use degraded, possibly ineffective medications for acute asthma attacks requiring immediate relief.
– When using any expired medication, monitor closely for decrease in effects. Be prepared to replace the supply if its potency appears reduced.
– For severe, uncontrolled asthma, do not rely on expired albuterol beyond 1 year past expiration, even if stored properly. The risks likely outweigh any benefits of using possibly degraded albuterol when asthma symptoms are not well controlled.
Expired Albuterol for Infant Asthma
Use extra caution before giving an infant or child expired albuterol, especially more than 6-12 months past expiration. Young children face higher risks from reduced drug potency or impurities.
Only use expired albuterol for children if:
– It is no more than 12 months past expiration
– The inhaler/vial appearance and contents seem normal
– The medication has been stored properly
– And using expired med is a last resort when you cannot quickly obtain a new, unexpired prescription
Carefully monitor for any decrease in effectiveness when using expired albuterol for a child. Consult a pediatrician before giving a small child any medication more than 6 months expired.
In general, do not use degraded, long-expired albuterol as a child’s primary asthma treatment. Try to keep a supply of unexpired albuterol on hand for infants and children.
When to Replace Expired Albuterol
In summary, follow these general guidelines on when to refill your albuterol prescription:
– Up to 1 year past expiration: Effective if stored properly
– 1-3 years past expiration: Monitor effectiveness closely, consider refilling prescription
– Over 3 years expired: Discard and replace with fresh prescription
– Discard any discolored or damaged products
– Do not use degraded albuterol for acute, severe asthma attacks requiring predictable relief
– Consult a doctor before using for infants or small children more than 6 months expired
Refill your albuterol before its potency seems significantly reduced. Be extra cautious when relying on expired albuterol to treat asthma in children. And do not push your luck with medications more than 3-4 years expired.
With prudent use, most albuterol inhalers and nebulizer solutions retain enough strength for at least 1 year past their expiration date. But always keep a fresh supply on hand for acute asthma attacks requiring immediate relief.
Getting New Albuterol
If your albuterol supply has surpassed its usable lifespan, it’s time to get fresh medicine. Here are some options:
Ask Your Doctor for a New Prescription
Contact your physician’s office and ask them to call in a new albuterol prescription to your pharmacy. Be sure to request refills so you have enough albuterol on hand.
Use an Online Doctor Visit
Many telehealth platforms like Teladoc allow you to meet virtually with a doctor for a prescription refill. The doctor can authorize a pharmacy to dispense more albuterol.
Visit an Urgent Care Clinic
Walk-in urgent care centers can provide new prescriptions. Describe your ongoing albuterol use and asthma history to the medical provider.
Switch to Over-the-Counter Albuterol
As of 2022, albuterol inhalers are available over-the-counter without a prescription in the United States. Switching to OTC albuterol lets you easily obtain new, unexpired medicine.
Look for the OTC brand names ProAir Digihaler and Proventil HFA. Check at drugstores or large retailers with pharmacies like Walmart, Kroger, CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, or Target.
The Bottom Line
Albuterol inhalers and nebulizer solutions typically retain most of their effectiveness and remain safe for use for around 1-3 years past the expiration date printed on their packaging. Exact duration depends on proper storage.
Watch closely for reduced potency after expiration, especially when using degraded albuterol to treat asthma in infants or children. Discard medications over 3-4 years expired to avoid issues from instability or impurities.
With close monitoring and precautions, most people can safely use unopened, properly stored albuterol for up to a year past its expiration before replacing it with newly prescribed or over-the-counter medicine. But always keep plenty of unexpired albuterol on hand for acute asthma attacks requiring immediate relief.