How Long Are Prescriptions Good For?

Published July 15th, 2020 by Bridget Reed
Fact Checked by
Chris Riley

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) National Center for Health Statistics, 48.4 percent of Americans used at least one prescription drug within the past 30 days from 2013 - 2016, while 24 percent used three or more prescription medications and 12.6 percent used five or more prescription drugs. With so many Americans taking prescription medications, many people are taking frequent trips to pharmacies for regular refills and to their doctors for checkups. No one wants to waste time at appointments they don’t need, and some people are unsure how often they need to go to their prescriber in order to make sure they have access to the medications they need. The question is, how long are prescriptions good for?

Non-Controlled Substances

Non-controlled substances include medications that can be purchased both over the counter and via prescription and are intended to treat medical conditions. These medications do not have a high risk of addiction or abuse and are considered safe for most people to take. Non-controlled substances include medications like Nexium, a proton pump inhibitor that is used for the treatment of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and is available over the counter at lower strengths and by prescription at higher strengths. Prescriptions for medications that are not controlled by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) usually have a time limit of one year after the prescription was written. Once the prescription is written and taken to your pharmacy, patients generally have up to 18 months to use any remaining refills; however, this depends on the medication and your state. 

Schedule III and IV Controlled Substances

The DEA defines Schedule III controlled substances as drugs, substances, or chemicals with a moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence. Schedule III drugs include medications like Tylenol with codeine, testosterone, anabolic steroids, and ketamine. Schedule IV controlled substances are defined as drugs with a low potential for abuse and a low risk of dependence. This includes popular medications like Ambien, Xanax, Valium, Ativan, and Tramadol. Prescriptions for Schedule III and IV medications are only valid for six months from the date the prescription was issued, and they cannot be filled or refilled more than five times during the six month period. 

Schedule II Controlled Substances

Schedule II controlled substances are defined by the DEA as “drugs with a high potential for abuse, with use potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence.” Schedule II controlled drugs include medications like opioid painkillers including Vicodin, Dilaudid, Demerol, OxyContin, and fentanyl, as well as stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin that are used for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Schedule II prescription medications have an interesting system of regulation in place, as they cannot be refilled. However, under federal law, prescriptions for Schedule II controlled substances do not expire. Many states have tried to fill in the gaps by providing their own time restrictions, which vary by state, but in states that do not have an established expiration, pharmacists must use their own judgment when deciding whether to fill the prescription.

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Extending Your Prescription

In most cases, you will be required to visit your doctor for a follow-up appointment when your prescription runs out of refills or becomes invalid. However, in some situations, your doctor or local pharmacy may be able to extend your prescription for a set amount of time in order to avoid interruptions in your treatment. After all, sometimes you may need a refill more quickly than your doctor’s schedule allows you to get an appointment. There are several rules that apply when it comes to extending a prescription:

  • The prescription cannot be renewed for a period of time longer than the length of the original prescription period.
  • Prescriptions originally written for periods of more than one year cannot be extended for more than one year.
  • There is no such thing as an unlimited amount of refills.
  • Some medications are not eligible for extensions.
  • Pharmacists are required to inform doctors that a renewal has occurred.

Drug Expiration

Maybe you’re less concerned about how long your actual prescription is valid for and are wondering about the shelf life of your medication. Let’s say you have an old prescription for sleeping pills that you never finished because your insomnia went away, but now you’re having difficulty sleeping again a couple of years later. Is it safe to take the medication? While the official guidance is that medications do expire at a certain date (which will be printed on your prescription bottle), a study conducted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on behalf of the military found that 90 percent of drugs, including both prescription and over-the-counter medications, were still safe and effective over a decade after the expiration date. There are some exceptions, including liquid antibiotics, insulin, and nitroglycerin, but most medications are longer lasting than we give them credit for. Although some medications will become slightly less effective over time, this is only really a concern after a significant period of time has passed. If your prescription drugs expired six months ago, you’ll get the exact same results taking them today. 

The best rule of thumb is to make sure you plan ahead when it comes to your prescription medications. Each month when you get your prescription, check the bottle and find out how many refills are remaining. This way, if you have no refills left or only a couple, you can contact your physician to get an appointment to be assessed for a new prescription. Waiting until the last minute could leave you without the medication you need, especially if you have been prescribed a controlled substance. Clear communication regarding your health information with both your doctor and your pharmacist will help avoid any misunderstandings and will provide plenty of time to get your refill on the off chance that there is difficulty getting an appointment with your doctor, the medication is out of stock, etc. Remember, your prescription and over the counter medications last longer than you think, so it’s not a bad idea to keep your extra medications around the house for use if needed.

Published July 15th, 2020 by Bridget Reed
Fact Checked by
Chris Riley

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