How Long Are Prescriptions Valid? What You Need to Know

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Your doctor sends a prescription to your pharmacy, but you don’t go pick it up right away. You find a folded-up paper prescription in your wallet. You pull out an old prescription bottle with refills left on it. In each of these scenarios, you may wonder when do prescriptions expire and if the prescription is still good.

Pharmacy is one of the most regulated professions in the United States. This makes answering the seemingly simple question “How long is a prescription valid?” rather complicated. The short version of the answer: It depends. It depends on whether you’re talking about a written prescription or a filled prescription. It depends on whether it is a scheduled drug or not. It depends on your state laws.

How long is a prescription valid after it is written?

Today, written prescriptions are more likely to be an electronic prescription rather than a piece of paper. However, some doctors do still write them on paper. Either way, when your doctor writes a prescription, how long it remains valid for filling depends on the laws in your state. The practice of pharmacy is governed by both state and federal laws. All states must follow federal law, but most states have enacted their own laws that are more restrictive.

Non-controlled substances

Federal law divides drugs into controlled and non-controlled substances. Non-controlled drugs are what you think of as familiar and commonly used prescription drugs, such as blood pressure, antibiotic and heart medicines. Federal law does not put a time limit on filling prescriptions for non-controlled drugs. Eight states don’t define a time limit either, including California, Massachusetts, and New York. However, most states have laws limiting the time to one year after the date the prescription is written. After that time, a pharmacist can’t legally fill it. Six states extend the time limit beyond one year, including Idaho, Iowa and Maine.

Regardless of whether there is a time limit or not, pharmacists must still use discretion when filling a prescription. For example, a pharmacist may decline to fill a prescription for an antibiotic if the doctor wrote it four months ago. Why? Because the nature of the original infection for which it was written may no longer apply. A new infection or symptoms consistent with an infection need a doctor’s evaluation.

Controlled substances

Controlled substances are drugs that can lead to physical or psychological dependence. The federal government determines which drugs are controlled substances. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) divides controlled substances into schedules. The schedules are based on a drug’s accepted medical uses and its potential for abuse and dependence. Narcotics and amphetamines are examples of controlled drugs.

Under federal law, there is no time limit on filling schedule II drugs, such as methylphenidate (Ritalin). However, many states have laws that limit the time, along with limiting the amount of drug a pharmacist can dispense. A prescription for a drug in schedules III or IV is valid for six months after a doctor writes it.

How long is a prescription valid after it is filled?

Federal and state laws outline limits for filled prescriptions too. Once a pharmacist fills a prescription, how long it remains valid or active depends on refills and if it is a controlled substance.

Non-controlled substances

Once you fill a prescription for a non-controlled drug, it is valid for a year after the filling date in most states. If your doctor includes refills on your prescription, you have one year to use them. After that, you or your pharmacy will need to contact the doctor for another prescription.

Like written prescriptions, some states have extended this timeframe. This includes:

  • Idaho 15 months
  • Illinois 15 months
  • Iowa 18 months
  • Maine 15 months
  • South Carolina 24 months
  • Wyoming 24 months

The extended timeframe has several benefits, especially for people who are stable on their current prescription. One of the biggest is avoiding interruptions in therapy while waiting for a new authorization between annual check-ups.

Controlled substances

How long a prescription for a controlled substance remains valid after filling depends on its schedule. Prescriptions for schedule II drugs aren’t refillable. They are valid only for the current prescription fill. Your doctor must write a new prescription for each fill.

Schedule III and IV prescriptions are valid for six months after you fill them. If your doctor provides refills, you have six months to use them. Federal law limits the number of refills in that timeframe to five.

What do you do if your prescription has expired?

If your prescription is no longer valid, you will need a new one. This means calling the doctor’s office or having the pharmacy contact your doctor. You may run into a problem if you haven’t seen your doctor in a while. Most offices will not renew a prescription if it’s been more than a year since you have had an appointment. So, what now?

If your prescription has been stable, the doctor’s office may allow a limited refill under the condition that you come in for an appointment. Pharmacists also have discretion to extend limited fills in certain situations. Having a personal and consistent relationship with one pharmacy can help, as the staff will know your history.

The best strategy for avoiding this situation is a good offense. Check your refills each time you fill your prescription. Schedule your annual exam as soon as you can based on your insurance plan’s guidelines. If you anticipate a gap between your exam and your refills running out, be proactive and contact your doctor’s office ahead of time.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 4
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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