5 Tips to Better Understand Drug Labels

November 2015, Vol 3, No 11 - Health & Wellness
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When using any kind of medication, whether it is purchased over-the-counter or prescribed by a provider, it is important to carefully read the information and instructions on the drug label. Failure to follow and understand these instructions can be harmful to your health, and may lead to medication errors. The following tips are important considerations to follow to better understand drug labels:

  1. Take the Time to Read the Directions
    When reading a drug label, take the time to carefully read through the directions listed on it. These directions provide details on how much of a medication should be taken, as well as how long and often it should be taken, and when to stop taking it.
  2. Look for Warnings
    Pay attention to warnings listed on drug labels. Often this will include information about who it is for and who should not be taking it (eg, for adults, not for children), what not to do or consume when taking a specific medication, and possible side effects. Not reading these warnings could make your medication less effective, or increase your risk for side effects.
  3. Make Sure the Medication Is for You
    Ensure that your name is printed on the labels for any prescription drugs you are taking. For over-the-counter medications, review the uses listed on the drug labels to confirm that it is appropriate to treat the symptoms you are experiencing.
  4. Check Every New Drug Label for Changes
    Read the drug label of every new bottle you receive. Even if the medication is one that you have used before, it is possible that the information on the drug label has changed since the last time that particular medication was received.
  5. Talk to Your Pharmacist
    Let your pharmacist know if you need help understanding or reading a drug label. In addition, don’t forget to let your primary care physician know of any medications prescribed to you by another provider, as well as over-the-counter medicines you are taking.


  1. Davis TC, Wolf MS, Bass PF III, et al. Literacy and misunderstanding prescription drug labels. Ann Intern Med. 2006;145:887-894.
  2. US Department of Health & Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health. How to read drug labels. http://womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/how-to-read-drug-labels.pdf. Published March 5, 2009. Accessed October 30, 2015.
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