Take a look at the packaged food you buy. Every package, by law, bears an expiration date, sometimes referred to as a Beyond Use Date (BUD). We have all been so conditioned to respect those dates that we sometimes fail to use even a small amount of rationality when confronted with a product that is beyond the date on the package. The first impulse is to throw the item away, regardless of how far past the date it is – even when the expiration is just yesterday.

Discarding perfectly good food or refusing to use a medicine because of a date on the package is usually just a quirky inconvenience. Food and drugs have no way of knowing that they have exceeded their useful life. Food doesn’t spoil on the printed date and drugs certainly don’t lose their potency. However, that’s the common belief among so many of us and our almost ingrained tendencies are to discard or not use anything that has passed the labeled date.

Sometimes, though, our urge to honor the printed date can be harmful or even cause death. How so? Let’s consider a lifesaving drug such as epinephrine. This is a powerful medicine people use to counteract serious allergic reactions. People with severe allergies, to wasp stings for example, carry pre-loaded syringes with them at all times. Parents provide the syringes to the school for use if their child suffers an anaphylactic reaction.

What if the syringe on hand is beyond the expiration date on the package? Would it be wise to use the drug regardless of the date rather than allow a child to suffer and, possibly, die? Maybe it is expired yesterday, or last year.

How far beyond the date would the epinephrine still be potent? We’ve tested some old epinephrine pens and found them to be still acceptably close to the labeled strength. However, because they are beyond the printed date, they are discarded and replaced and few people wouldn’t want to use one, even in an emergency.

Consider this scene. An allergic person begins to experience the worst kind of allergic reaction, anaphylaxis. If emergency assistance isn’t administered quickly the person will die. You find an epinephrine pen in the desk and the label declares the expiration date to be almost a year ago. Presuming you know how to use the rescue drug, would you use the expired drug or not? I would. Why?

First, anaphylaxis is a life-threatening emergency. Second, I have something in hand that might save a life, except for the small printed expiration date. I also know that the epinephrine does not automatically lose all its potency on that date. Additionally, it doesn’t turn into a toxic substance. It will probably work. If not, nothing’s lost.

I offer this bit of advice to everyone who is in any way involved with people who need epinephrine to save their life. The chance the outdated drug will work is high. The chance for a positive outcome by not using it is zero. Yes, it’s a tough decision and it probably will never come up. The important thing to do right now is to think it through and decide what you would do, before you find yourself in an emergency situation that could easily impair your reasoning skills.

Feel free to toss the old milk or mayonnaise, but give serious thought before abandoning potentially life saving medicines just because the date on the container is no longer in the future.