Understanding Drug Labels

For those who are ill and need to take prescription or over-the-counter drugs, the number and variety of available drugs to treat their condition is staggering. By law, all drugs must be labeled and contain instructions detailing their composition, active ingredients, possible side effects, and dosage directions. These labels have recently become easier to read, as a 2006 U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation required new and improved labels for over the counter medicine.

For some, however, reading and understanding drug labels can still be a challenge. Luckily, when taking a medicine prescribed by a doctor, your health care provider will often give you detailed instructions on how much and how often to take the drugs, and what side effects you might expect. Not everything is so neatly spelled out with over the counter medicine, however, and navigating this medical terrain can be challenging without guidance. This article will highlight the most important parts of a drug's label for those who may need this help. All labels are required to have the same standardized categories, so once you learn to read one label, you've learned to read them all.

Active Ingredients: This tells you what particular compound is responsible for the drug's effect, as well as how much each pill contains. Knowing the active ingredient is especially important if you are taking any other drugs, as you want to avoid negative drug interactions.

Uses: This will tell you what diseases and conditions the drug treats.

Warnings: This section will tell you all the negative aspects of the drug that you should watch out for. For example, the warnings section will tell you about any negative side effects or drug interactions. It will also tell you to not take it if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. It may recommend keeping the drugs away from children due to toxicity issues. It may even tell you to consult with a doctor before using the drug. Pay close attention to these warnings - it may save your health, or your life.

Inactive Ingredients: This category isn't as important. It simply details what other compounds are in the drug used for coloring or flavoring.

Purpose: This tells you what the drug does. For instance, the drug's purpose could be pain relief, cholesterol reduction, or decongestion of sinuses.

Directions: This is extremely important information, as this section tells you how much and how often to take the drug. It will make dosage recommendations based on age, though sometimes weight may come into play. Do not go off the label here. Many people get very ill by taking too much of an over the counter drug, thinking that since it's sold OTC it must obviously be safe. Wrong! Consumers overdose quite often on ibuprofen, a common pain reliever found in drugs like Advil, because they take it too often or in too high a dosage.

Other Information: This will tell you about any other facts you need to know about the drug. For example, it might inform you of other ingredients it contains that may be a health issue, such as high sodium content. Or it could give you instructions on how to store the drug when not in use. Pay attention to this section to prevent any mishandling of the drug.

If all else fails, you have one other useful resource: your local pharmacist. All you have to do is bring in your drug to a nearby pharmacist and tell him or her of your concerns. He or she will be happy to help you both with reading and understanding drug labels and tailoring your usage of the drug to your specific situation.