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How old are your pills?

Here's the scene. It's Saturday. My husband's been working in the yard all day — tugging at roots and vines, unloading shovelfuls of gravel and dirt — exerting himself in ways he typically doesn't. Not surprisingly, he's strained a muscle in his lower back.

He admits to pain, which is a big deal because he's such a stoic sort. In my wifely way, I provide a brief lecture on the importance of warming up before doing physical activity or exercise, suggest an ice pack and start the search for an over-the-counter pain reliever.

The first non-prescription pain medication I find in our crowded medicine cabinet looks promising — and then I examine it more closely. It has an expiration date of Feb. 2008. I keep looking and find another toward the back. That one expired in 2005. My husband, in visible discomfort, but curious — initiates his own hunt. He finds a half-empty vitamin bottle that says "Exp. date 04/03." We look at each other and say something like, "Yikes."

But hear this — the experts may not be as worried as we had suddenly become. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) "requires expiration dates be placed on most prescription and over-the-counter medications as a guarantee from the manufacturer a medication will remain chemically stable — and thus maintain its full potency and safety prior to that date."

Most medications, however, "retain their potency beyond the expiration date, and outdated medications, whether prescription or over-the-counter, are not usually harmful."

That reference comes from a Johns Hopkins University medication alert and is based on an "FDA study conducted on a large stockpile of medications purchased by the military which found 90 percent of more than 100 medications were safe and effective to use years after the expiration date."

But I will not abandon that "yikes" moment altogether. The drugs in the FDA study were stored under ideal conditions — not in a bathroom where heat and humidity are likely to cause them to degrade more quickly. ("Where do you store your medications?")

Both the FDA and Johns Hopkins say, "If your medications have been stored under good conditions, they should retain all or much of their potency for at least one to two years following their expiration date, even after the container is opened. But you should discard any pills that have become discolored, turned powdery, smell strong — and liquids that appear cloudy or filmy."

This is important information. Care to join me in finding out more? I've arranged for a local pharmacist to teach a class on all aspects of "Medication Jeopardy" at the Oregon State University Research and Extension Center auditorium on Hanley Road on Monday, Oct. 11, from 7 to 9 p.m. The fee is $5.

The pharmacist will provide individual medication reviews for those who pre-register. (Call 541-776-7371).

Our household search for potent pain relief uncovered a large number of medications with expiration dates more than two years prior. It was sobering. It got our attention. Cool, dark and humidity-free storage is best — and that's not often the bathroom "medicine" cabinet.

And so I ask again — where do you store your medications? Go ahead — take a look. If you have a medication bottle with an expiration date earlier than April 2003, I'll let you into the class free.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.