• How to Read a Medication Label


    To take your medication safely, you must be sure you understand the dosing instructions and any interactions. This sounds simple, but medication labels can be confusing. Let's look at some common types of labels and the kinds of information that appear on them.

    Over-the-Counter Medications

    You might be most concerned about your prescription drugs, but it is a good idea to carefully read labels for any over-the-counter (OTC) medications that you use and to consult your doctor about any vitamin or herbal supplements you take. You will want to read OTC medication labels to find out how much to take and when. You will also want to be sure the medication is safe to use with any other medications that you take and will not worsen any conditions you have. For example, if you are a cardiovascular disease patient, you might have high blood pressure. Some OTC medications, such as decongestants, can raise blood pressure. Reading package labels and inserts can help you know if the cold remedy or other medication is safe to use. And, as always, if you have any questions at all, you should talk immediately with your pharmacist or physician.

    Prescription Medications

    Prescription labels may vary from one pharmacy to another but they typically share the following elements:

    • Pharmacy's name, address and telephone number
    • Prescription number assigned only to that prescription
    • Date you are filling the prescription
    • Patient's name and address
    • Instructions for taking the medication
    • Number of refills
    • Expiration date 

    You may also find that some words on your prescription label have been abbreviated. The chart on this page shows some common abbreviations and what they stand for. If you are not sure that you understand your medication label, do not be embarrassed: Ask your pharmacist. He or she is there to assist you.

    FDA Black-Box Warnings

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    Dr. Joseph D. Babb, of East Carolina University, explains why black box warnings may or may not have anything to do with you and your treatment.

    At some point during your medical therapy, you may encounter a prescription label that contains a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) boxed warning, often called a "black-box warning." This warning is the FDA's highest warning level for a medication. It indicates that taking the medication may carry risks for some patients. If you have a prescription medication that carries a black-box warning, there is no reason to panic; it simply means that you should talk with the prescribing physician to get more information. It is NEVER a good idea to stop taking the medication before you have spoken with your physician. Doing so can be dangerous.

    For example, in March of 2010, the FDA issued a statement that the antiplatelet drug clopidogrel (Plavix) would carry a black-box warning. Clopidogrel was discovered to be less effective in a small percentage of the population who carry a particular gene. For these patients, called poor metabolizers, the risk of heart attack was elevated because they were not receiving the full benefit of clopidogrel. Patients who do not metabolize the drug well can be switched to a higher dose or to a new antiplatelet drug. The majority of clopidogrel users do not need to change their current prescription.