(NEXSTAR) — Fall is here, and that means so is cold and flu season. You just never know when you might be heading to your medicine cabinet to see what you have on hand to ease your stuffy nose or sore throat.

As you rummage around in there trying to find something that will open up your nasal passages, chances are you will come across a box of decongestants or a bottle of cough syrup. You may even have some throat lozenges tucked way in the back.

However, before you pop a pill or take a teaspoon of any medicine, you should make sure it’s not expired.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says the chemical composition of medicines can change once they are expired or they can decrease in strength, making them less effective or even risky to use.

“Certain expired medications are at risk of bacterial growth and sub-potent antibiotics can fail to treat infections, leading to more serious illnesses and antibiotic resistance,” the FDA said. “Once the expiration date has passed there is no guarantee that the medicine will be safe and effective. If your medicine has expired, do not use it.”

The FDA started requiring an expiration date on prescription and over-the counter medicines in 1979. The date is typically printed on the label or stamped onto the bottle or carton, sometimes following “EXP.”

Proper disposal

If you do come across expired medicines, don’t be tempted to take them. Throw them away, but make sure you do so responsibly.

Failing to properly dispose of old medicines — especially opioids — could lead to them ending up in the wrong hands, such as children or pets. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 50,000 children are taken to emergency rooms each year because they were able to gain access to old meds.

The Drug Enforcement Administration recommends returning expired medicines to a drug take-back program. The DEA says flushing unwanted medicines should only be done when the label or accompanying patient information instructs it. The FDA also provides a list of medicines that can be flushed for disposal.

The DEA also suggests taking old drugs out of their original contains, mixing them with something “undesirable,” such as old coffee grounds or cat litter, and putting the mixture in a sealable disposable container before throwing them in the trash. You should also obscure or remove any personal information, including your prescription number, on the empty medicine containers before trashing them.

Proper storage

To maintain the safety and effectiveness of your medicines up to their expiration date, be sure to follow storage instructions on the label.

Some medicines need to be refrigerated, for example. Most medicines, though, should be stored in a cool, dry place away from humidity or heat sources, such as a sink or hot appliance.

Other products expire, too

Medicines aren’t the only products that expire.

You may not know it, but bleach can indeed go bad. In fact, bleach maintains its disinfecting power for only about six months when stored in places with temperatures of 50-70 degrees. Similarly, laundry detergent also loses some of its effectiveness after a certain date.

Makeup expiration dates are guidelines for after the product has been opened, but generally, most unopened, sealed makeup can last for two to three years if properly stored. And sunscreens are required by the FDA to remain at their original strengths for at least three years.

Incidentally, some foods are still OK to eat after their expiration date. Date labeling for food is not federally regulated, except for baby formula. According to Consumer Reports, the “best if used by,” “sell by,” and “use by” labels are often a manufacturer’s “best guess” as to food freshness.