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How to Read a Drug Label

By: Ian Murnaghan BSc (hons), MSc - Updated: 25 Oct 2012 | comments*Discuss
Drug Label How Read Effects Use Cautions

All over-the-counter drugs are required to have a drug label which provides ingredients, instructions for use and any important cautions and interactions. A drug may not give the intended effect if labels are not followed and the drug can, in fact, damage your health from poor drug label compliance.

Reading the Label
A label should always be read before initially taking the drug. Over-the-counter drugs usually require more responsibility on your part to read the label and any enclosed directions whereas a pharmacist is likely to go over the drug directions when he or she dispenses your prescription. Either way, you should read the label carefully and be sure you are aware of how to take the medication. If you have any doubts or confusion, ask your doctor or pharmacist for clarification. Always wear any corrective eyewear that you require to ensure you accurately interpret the information and don't try to read the label in poor lighting conditions.

Active Ingredients
The active ingredients are the chemical compounds that are specifically meant to treat a particular condition, or perhaps several conditions. They will usually be listed first on the label and the active ingredients are those that will bring relief to the symptoms you are experiencing. For over-the-counter drugs, it's generally not a wise idea to take two drugs with the same active ingredients because the effect may be amplified and you could suffer from a medication overdose.

Inactive Ingredients
Inactive ingredients will include such additives as binders, fillers, preservatives and colours in the medication. These drugs are not meant to have a direct effect on your symptoms.

The directions are extremely important to follow because taking too little of a drug may not provide the desired effect and taking too much could cause an overdose. The instructions will include the dosage amount (e.g. 2 capsules) and the frequency (e.g. 3 times per day). It is imperative that you also follow the frequency exactly as directed. Some labels will also provide a maximum to be consumed within a day. Another type of direction may be the delivery of the drug. Some drugs are simply taken with a glass of water while others may be delivered through the skin in an ointment or cream format.

UsesThis section of the label will tell you what symptoms and conditions the drug has been approved to treat. It is likely that you will have checked with a pharmacist first for advice on an over-the-counter drug and will have chosen a medication that is well suited to your symptoms.

Warnings or Cautions
This section will include warnings about possible interactions with foods, beverages, other drugs or alternately, other medical conditions. Also included may be warnings against sun exposure, which can occur due to increased skin sensitivity from certain drugs. If the drug has a sedating or drowsy effect, cautions may be given against driving, operating any machinery or partaking in any activity that requires focus and could cause harm if focusing is impaired. Cautions will often remind you to keep the drug out of a child's reach. It's also important that you don't use the medication if the seal has been broken.

Other Information
Drug labels that have other information listed will usually include things like storage recommendations and may possibly contain information regarding the expiration of the drug.

Questions or Comments
Many labels will include a company contact number, which is often toll-free. You may be able to speak directly with someone or leave a message regarding any concerns or comments.

Drug labels are important guides that tell you all about a drug and how you can get the most benefit from its effects. Think of a drug label as a blueprint to better health. If you follow it carefully and accurately, you can 'build' a healthier body and do so with less risk and harm.

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