How To Read Drug Labels: A Step by Step Guide for Consumers

When it comes to medications, consumers need to be their own advocates. Labels on prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs can be confusing and difficult to understand. Drug labels differ between OTC and prescription drugs. For example, OTC drug labels, also called Drug Facts, are much shorter, while prescription drug labels may include various information pages.

Key takeaways:
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    Medication labels contain important information that you should understand before taking the drug.
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    Check the label for the name of the active ingredient, strength, form, and route of administration.
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    Also check for interactions and other warnings.
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    Always follow the directions on the drug label and ask your doctor or pharmacist if you have any questions.

Even if instructions are complex, you must take time to read them properly. It's particularly crucial for anyone living with chronic illnesses or older adults. These people have a greater risk of drug errors and interactions because they often take multiple medications.

Before taking any new medications, review the drug label with your doctor or pharmacist. By doing so, you can ensure that you're making informed decisions about your health and are taking your medications safely and effectively.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to reading and understanding drug labels. But first, let's look at why it's so crucial.

Why is it important to read drug labels?

There are several reasons why you should take the time to read drug labels, including:

  • Ensuring it's the correct medication: It's important to ensure that you take the correct medication for your condition. If you're taking multiple medications, you risk confusion, so you should always check.
  • Taking the medication correctly: Incorrect medication use is a common problem and can lead to ineffective treatment or be dangerous. The label provides instructions on how to take the medication safely.
  • Avoiding drug interactions: Some medications can affect each other, possibly leading to health problems. By reading the labels, you can check for possible interactions and avoid any issues.
  • Minimizing side effects: All medications come with the risk of side effects, some of which can be serious. By reading the label, you'll know what they are and can watch out for them.

Although it's important to read drug labels, many people either choose not to or don't understand the information.

How many people read drug labels properly?

According to Consumer Reports, an independent, non-profit member that works to create fairness in industry, more than 500,000 people in the United States misinterpret drug labels each year.

Furthermore, there are approximately 1.5 million preventable medication errors annually. Around 1 in 3 of these mistakes occur in settings other than hospitals, where people must rely on their own ability to follow the instructions on medication labels.

Studies show that many people misunderstand at least some instructions on their pill bottles or boxes. For example, around 1 in 3 people don't realize that "two tablets by mouth twice daily" means they should take four tablets in 24 hours.

However, not all mistakes are due to a lack of understanding on the part of the consumer. Prescription medications can carry various instructions and warnings, which may be displayed differently according to the manufacturer and dispensing pharmacy.

Consumer Report found that critical information on the labels was confusing, misleading, difficult to find, or missing in many cases. Sometimes, additional drug-safety information was stapled onto pharmacy bags, was difficult to read because of its small size, had inconsistent information about side effects, or used confusing medical jargon.

They also found that some pharmacies didn't follow Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations that a medication guide should be included with many prescription medications.

Because there are no nationwide standards for prescription medication labels, it's up to you, the consumer, to ensure that you understand the label on your medication. The language used can be technical, and there's a lot of information to take in. However, the following steps will help you make sense of everything.

Make sure you can identify the following information on the label:

  • Name of the active ingredient in the medication.
  • Health conditions that the drug treats.
  • Strength, meaning how much active ingredient is in each dose.
  • Form (pill, tablet, capsule, liquid, patch, etc.).
  • Route of administration (by mouth, injection, topical).
  • Manufacturer.
  • Expiry date.

Prescription and OTC drugs should carry this information. If the expiry date has passed, be aware that the drug may no longer be effective or safe to take.

Prescription medication should also list your name, the name, and address of the prescribing doctor, and the date the prescription was filled.

All medications come with a warning section containing important safety messages that you should be aware of before taking a medication.

It typically outlines:

  • Who shouldn't take the drug.
  • When you should stop using it.
  • When to call your doctor.
  • Potential side effects.

The warning section allows you to check if taking the medication is unsafe for specific health conditions or alongside other medications.

There should be instructions on how to take the medication safely and effectively. This usually includes:

  • Dose: How much to take each time, for example, two tablets or one teaspoon.
  • Frequency: How often should you take it? Every 4 hours, 3 times a day, etc.
  • Timing: Whether you should take it with food or on an empty stomach, in the morning or at night.
  • Duration: How long is the course? For example, 1 week, 10 days, etc.

Never take more medication than the label says without discussing it with your doctor.

4. Follow the storage instructions

Drugs have specific storage instructions to ensure they remain effective and safe. For example, some need to be refrigerated while others should be kept at room temperature.

Heat and humidity may damage medications, so never keep them in a steamy bathroom or hot kitchen. Also, remember that your car can get extremely hot when the weather's warm, so it's never a good idea to keep medications in the glove box.

This part of the label also prompts you to check the package's safety seal to ensure it hasn't been tampered with.

These ingredients improve the taste, smell, or look of medications. They may also make them easier to swallow or dissolve. They don't have any therapeutic effects, but they may cause side effects if you're allergic or sensitive. For example, you may be allergic to a dye used to color the medication.

By taking the time to read and understand the label on your medication, you can be sure that you're taking it safely and effectively. Check the directions, warnings, and storage instructions every time you pick up a new prescription or OTC medication to avoid any potential problems.

Always speak to your doctor or pharmacist if you have any questions about a specific drug. They'll be more than happy to help.


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