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How to read prescription labels

Written by 
Caroline Bodian

Article at a glance

  • Knowing how to read your prescription label can save you from future trips to the doctor or the emergency room. It can also help ensure better management of your condition and a smoother recovery from your illness. To learn more about this topic read about why it’s important to read a prescription medication label.

  • You can usually find the potential side effects listed on the patient prescribing information (PPI), along with warnings and other information about the medication. To learn more about this topic, read the section on potential side effects and harmful interactions.

  • On the label you’ll find dosage information and instructions on how to take the medication. Pay extra close attention to this, as language is not standardized and can be misleading. If you have any questions, ask your doctor or pharmacist. To learn more about this topic read the components of a prescription medication label.

If you’re having trouble figuring out a prescription drug label, you’re not alone. Millions of adults in the United States misunderstand prescription drug labels. With more than 33% of American adults having insufficient health literacy, and providers sometimes using difficult-to-decipher instructions, it’s no wonder medication labels can leave us feeling uncertain. To make matters more confusing, prescription labeling isn’t standardized. One study by Northwestern University found there were 53 different ways to write Take one tablet twice daily.” This can lead to confusion, especially if English isn’t your first language. This lack of clarity and standardized language on prescription drug labels can have even more damaging consequences, which is why it’s very important to know what each part of the label means. You have every right to ask your doctor or pharmacist when you’re unsure.

What is a prescription medication label?

Prescription medication generally comes equipped with a label that has details and instructions on how to take the medicine your doctor has recommended. For your treatment to be effective, and to avoid medical emergencies, it’s important for you to read the prescription label carefully. On each label you’ll find information about: the doctor who prescribed the medication, the prescription number, the patient name, instructions on how to take the medication, the name of the medication, the quantity of the medication per pack or bottle, the number of refills allowed by a specific date, the date by which the medication should no longer be taken, the date the medication was filled, and the name, address, and phone number of the pharmacy.

While all labels provide this information, not all labels will be written in the same format. Try to familiarize yourself with how your prescription drug labels are presented. There may be some confusion about What a label” is: the label is the sticker on the outside of the bottle or box that gives you basic information about your medication. It doesn’t contain detailed information about warnings or adverse events. That information will be contained in supplementary information called the Patient Prescribing Information (PPI) or Medication Information” that is usually on a paper printout provided by the pharmacy. 

Why is it important to know how to read a prescription medication label?

Being able to read your prescription medication label can help you properly manage your condition and ensure a smooth and speedy recovery from your illness. It can save you from having to make future trips to the doctor or to the emergency room, which could happen if you take the wrong dosage, the medication is expired, or the wrong medication is in the bottle. Knowing how to read the label also means double-checking that you’ve been given the right prescription. Fully understanding your medication and how to take it is an essential step in your treatment process. Remember to read all attached information such as the Patient Prescribing Information (PPI) and the Medication Information.

Understanding your medication: potential side effects and harmful interactions

Just as important as understanding how much of the medication to take is knowing the drug’s possible side effects and potentially harmful interactions. You’ll usually find this information on the warning label(s) located on the side or back and on the Patient Prescribing Information and/​or the Medication Information. Each medication comes with warnings that might tell you what medications not to take at the same time and what might happen if you take too much of a certain medication. You can usually also find the potential side effects listed on the Package Insert, along with more warnings and other information about the medication. If you have any questions or concerns regarding the safety of your medication or potential side effects, you should talk to your doctor or pharmacist.

The components of a prescription medication label

Doctor name: This information tells you who prescribed the medication. Remember to ask your doctor if you have any questions about dosage, harmful interactions with other medications you are taking, or side effects.

Pharmacy name, address and phone number: This will give you the pharmacy’s contact information. You can also ask your pharmacist any questions relating to the medication and how it’s best taken.

Patient name: Always check to make sure the patient name is correct on the label. While it’s not common, you might receive someone else’s prescription.

Date: This is when the pharmacy filled the medication.

Dose and how to take the medication: This will tell you how much of the medication to take, how to take the medication (for example, by mouth”) and how often you should take it. As mentioned above, there may be some confusion depending on how this part of the label is worded. Take two tablets twice daily” is a directive not everyone may know how to interpret. Does that mean you’re supposed to take the drug every 12 hours? Or can you take each dose any time throughout the day? These are questions you may be asking yourself when trying to decode your prescription drug label. Make sure to read this part of the label carefully and ask your doctor or pharmacist if you have any questions.

Medication name and strength: Here you’ll find the name of the drug, along with its strength, and what form it comes in (capsules, tablets, etc.). If you are taking the brand name of the drug you’ll find its generic name below it. (If you’re taking the generic version of the drug, you may see only the generic name on the label.) If you have already been prescribed the generic version, you may discover this is a duplicate” and you should inform your doctor that you are already taking this drug.

Quantity: As the label suggests, this is the amount of the medication (pills, liquid, tablets, etc.) dispensed. For example, the quantity might say 120 pills if it’s a 60-day supply and the pills are to be taken twice a day.

Number of refills allowed by a specific date: This is the number of refills you can get within a certain time period. Usually, this refill date is 12 months after the medication has been prescribed. (Note: the refill date is not the same as the drug expiration date.)

Drug expiration date: This is when you’ll have to throw out the medication because it may no longer be effective if used past this date.

Warning labels: You’ll generally find warnings and descriptions of the drug’s physical appearance on accompanying material called the Patient Prescribing Information (PPI) or Medication Information. Make sure to pay extra close attention to these warning labels, as they’ll have important safety information. These accompanying printouts will also describe all warnings as well as possible side effects. Be sure to read the physical description of the drug and ensure that what’s inside the bottle matches the description.

Remember that the PPI and the Medication Information can vary in terms of format and information isn’t always listed in the same order.

Prescription medication labels are always changing and being revised for clarity and accessibility. One of the latest amendments came in 2006 when the United States Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) changed the package insert to a more easily readable format called the Patient Package Insert (PPI). Today, an insert from the pharmacy called Medication Information” is provided to the patient when a prescription is filled. These simple alterations can help save lives. Every year, 300,000 preventable adverse events send patients to the hospital because of unclear medical information. There are still changes to be made to avoid these problems, beginning with standardizing language on how to take medication — when there are so many different ways to convey the same thing, confusion is inevitable. In the meantime, what you can do is be well-informed about why it’s important to read the medication label, Medication Information and/​or the PPI carefully and what each part of these mean. And if you’re still in doubt, don’t be afraid to speak up and ask questions. A quick phone call to your doctor or pharmacy can save you from discomfort and aggravation later on.

Reading prescription labels

This infographic breaks down how to read and understand prescription labels.

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