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Back to School: Understanding Prescription Labels

Terri Ackerman

Last updated: October 20, 2016 7:25 pm

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Whether you’re 12, 22 or 62, it’s never too early or too late to learn how to read prescription labels. Understanding a prescription, knowing the correct dose, and reading drug labels carefully cannot only help you feel better but also help you prevent unpleasant or dangerous side effects. 1

Recall Center 101: Reading a Prescription Label

Here are some basics that can help you understand what you need to know about prescriptions labels and what they mean.

When a Doctor Prescribes a New Medication

Make sure your doctor knows your medical history. Let him or her know if you have any medical conditions, or are currently pregnant. Tell your doctor what medications and supplements, such as herbs and vitamins, you’re already taking. Ask detailed questions about what the medication is supposed to do, when and how you should take it, what dose you should take, and how long you should take it, as well as any side effects. 2

Understanding Drug Interactions and Side Effects

Drugs can interact with food and beverages, supplements, and other drugs. 3 Drug labels and the information that comes with a prescription or over-the-counter medication, and your doctor and pharmacist, should tell you if you should not take that drug with certain foods or other medications, such as alcohol.

Sometimes dangerous side effects can occur. Accidentally, you could take two medications that have similar ingredients, which could cause complications or an allergic reaction. In other cases, one medication may not work at all if taken with certain foods or drugs. 4

Reading Drug Labels

Both over-the-counter and prescription drugs come with labels. Labels for all drugs and package inserts (for prescription medications) provide directions as well as a listing of ingredients, uses of the medication, an expiration date and warnings about possible side effects. 5

Reading drug labels carefully is key to understanding a prescription or over-the-counter medication. 6 Graphics may help you interpret drug labels:

Know Your Medications

Whenever you have questions, ask. Once a year, have your doctor or pharmacist review your medications.

Ideally, have the same pharmacy fill all of your prescriptions because its pharmacists can alert you to any potential problems. If you see several doctors who each provide different prescriptions, give each a complete list of all the medications and supplements you take to each.

Also, take personal responsibility by keeping track of all of the drugs and supplements you take and reading drug labels. Know what drugs you are taking and why.  7

Follow Common Usage Recommendations and Know Your Dose

Drug labels provide dosing guidelines, and your personal prescription for prescription medications will also have instructions regarding how to take the drug. Some products come with a medicine dropper, dosing cup or other measuring tool. Make sure you understand the difference between “teaspoon” (tsp.) and “tablespoon” (tbsp.) and “cc” and “ml”, for example. Manufacturers may make changes to their drug labels, so it’s a good idea to make it a habit of reading drug labels each time you purchase a drug. 8

Who to Call With Any Issues

Anytime you have a question or concern — if you experience side effects, miss a dose or take too much — contact your doctor or pharmacist. In an emergency, call 9-1-1.

You can also contact the:

  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) at 888-INFO-FDA (888-463-6332).
  • Consumer Healthcare Products Association at 202-429-9260.
  • Poison Center Hotline at 800-222-1222. 9
  1. http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/ucm163354.htm  

  2. http://www.caregiverslibrary.org/caregivers-resources/grp-home-care/hsgrp-medications/understanding-drug-interactions-article.aspx; http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/ucm163354.htm

  3. http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm182745.htm; http://www.caregiverslibrary.org/caregivers-resources/grp-home-care/hsgrp-medications/understanding-drug-interactions-article.aspx 

  4. http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/ucm163354.htm 

  5. http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/ucm163354.htm; http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/EmergencyPreparedness/BioterrorismandDrugPreparedness/ucm133411.htm 

  6. http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/ucm163354.htm; http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/EmergencyPreparedness/BioterrorismandDrugPreparedness/ucm133411.htm 

  7. http://www.caregiverslibrary.org/caregivers-resources/grp-home-care/hsgrp-medications/understanding-drug-interactions-article.aspx; http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/ucm163354.htm 

  8. http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/EmergencyPreparedness/BioterrorismandDrugPreparedness/ucm133411.htm; http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/drugs-procedures-devices/over-the-counter/medicine-and-your-child-how-to-give-your-child-medicine.html 

  9. http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/EmergencyPreparedness/BioterrorismandDrugPreparedness/ucm133411.htm; http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/ucm163354.htm