What Does Your Prescription Drug Label Say? Everything You Need to Know
Studies show that many patients can read their prescription drug labels, but only a third understand them. If you read 'take two tablets twice daily,' what do you think it means? Take two tablets a day? Or take two tablets twice a day?
Prescription drug labels contain information that could save your life, especially in combination with other medications. To stay safe, you need to understand what drugs you have received and how to take them.
Doctors and pharmacists are also prone to human error and may misread or provide you with the wrong medication. Combinations of drugs are especially volatile. For the elderly and those with chronic illnesses, understanding how your medications combine is vital.
Taking the wrong dose or medication can be detrimental to your preexisting illness and general health - and in some cases, prove fatal. That applies to both over-the-counter drug labels and prescription drug labels.
Misuse of prescription drugs is a considerable public health concern, especially with the prescription of opioids. While the abuse of pharmaceuticals remains a crisis to be addressed, awareness of drug labels is essential. Even drugs that are not considered to be particularly strong require careful attention.
All drugs produce cascading effects on different parts of the body. Given that drugs are chemical, they cannot be limited to one particular area. Additionally, many drugs aren’t exhaustively researched, especially regarding possible combinations.
Most prescription labels do their best to account for this by limiting dosage and timing. Even deadly combinations can be mitigated this way. Pharmaceutical companies generally want to avoid damage to patients - that leads to lawsuits and bad publicity.
Let’s address critical factors to consider when prescribed medication and reading your labels. Even if you don’t take prescription medicines yourself, always make sure to help your loved ones.
The Basics of Prescription Medications
Prescription medications are those which are given to you specifically by your doctor or pharmacist. Prescriptions exist because the drugs need professional expertise to administer.
Certain drugs can have significant side effects. These can be aggravated by pre-conditions, allergies, or other medications already being consumed by the patient. Hence, it is always essential, to be honest with your doctor when responding to questions about your health.
Prescription medication is, by definition, only intended for you - the patient. That is why one of the most important things to check on your medicine is that it matches your name.
Other vital information includes whether or not the medication aligns with your doctor's advice. Note that the medication name is not the brand name or generic name - we'll get to those below.
If need be, make notes when talking to your doctor, or have them confirm what they are prescribing you. This way, you know that you are taking the correct medication. You can also double-check that your prescription matches your consultation.
Prescription medications are generally given in two different forms. Drugs are either generic or brand name drugs. On average, generic drugs cost around 60% less than brand name drugs of the same type.
Brand vs. Generic Controversy
While controversy certainly exists. On the equivalence of generic drugs, Health Canada requires bioequivalence for all generic drugs. Bioequivalence means that there should be “no significant difference between how quickly the medicinal ingredient is absorbed and achieves a certain level in the blood (bioavailability).”
Tests are conducted to see if the generic drug delivers the same amount of medicinal ingredient in the blood at the same rate as the brand name drug. The FDA also carries out rigorous testing to ensure that generic drugs are equal to brand name drugs.
Generic drugs should come in the sale forms, with the same dosage strength, and contain the same active ingredients as a brand name drug.
Over-the-Counter vs. Prescription
Over-the-counter drug labels are called Drug Facts. While prescription drug labels may also include information sheets and medication guides.
When receiving a drug from your pharmacist or doctor, review the label with them, and communicate your health conditions. Be sure to inform them of any other supplements or medications you are already taking. That way, professionals can confirm that the combination of supplements is known to be safe.
Sometimes we take drugs that we don’t consider as drugs. Be sure to double-check the label on your product - if it says ‘drug facts’, it is indeed a drug. Any substance that is intended for the cure, treatment, diagnosis, prevention, or mitigation of a disease - is a drug.
Why is it Important to Read your Labels?
You are informed as a consumer to protect you and your health. When taking any medication, it is important to make sure you understand what medication you are taking and its potential side effects.
Make sure you know the following:
- What pharmacy you ordered your medication from (especially when ordering online)
- What medication you are supposed to take - and its correct brand name or generic name
- When you should be taking the medication
- Specific directions for taking the medication (e.g. with food)
- When to refill the medication
- That the medication is addressed to you only
- When the medication will expire
Even with all available information given to consumers, understanding what it means can be challenging. If you have any doubts about the clarity of the information you have received, call your doctor or pharmacist to check and verify.
Only refer to a medical professional to verify your understanding of the information about your medication. While some may not see this step as necessary, it can save lives.
Over-the-Counter (OTC) Drug Labels
OTC drug labels contain several different elements that deserve equal attention to prescriptions. OTC drugs can produce equally strong effects and interactions with other medications. Make sure to read the labels carefully.
The following elements are present in OTC drug labels.
Active Ingredient and Purpose
This part lists the active ingredient that makes the drug effective towards its purpose. The purpose should indicate what the active ingredient does. Also included, is the amount of active ingredient in the medicine.
This section is crucial. Understanding the drug's context prevents consuming different medications with the same active ingredient.
Some consumers mistake the brand name of the drug as its active ingredient. As a result, consumers may end up taking two identical drugs with different brand names.
This section is quite straightforward. The section indicates what types of symptoms are suitable for the consumption of the drug. It is always important to read this as taking a drug for the wrong symptoms can worsen them.
For example, pain-relief labels may state that they help with headaches, joint pain, or toothaches.
This is one of the most vital parts of the drug label and often the largest section. This part informs you who shouldn’t take the drug, the side effects you might have when to call your doctor, and, when you should stop using it.
Warning sections are often the most elaborate sections of a Drug Facts label. This section informs the consumer about severe side effects and possible drug interactions that can occur. They also inform certain consumers not to take the drug.
For example, consumers with a heart condition or those with certain allergies should not take certain drugs. Warnings also tell the user to stop taking the drug if they should see certain side effects. In the presence of those side effects, users should also consult a doctor as soon as possible.
The direction label informs the consumer how, when, and how often to take the drug. Drugs often have different consumption instructions for children and adults as their bodies are differently sized. Children are unable to digest and process the same amount of drug chemicals as adults can safely.
The most common warning is that users should not take more than the prescribed amount of drug without first consulting their doctor. Upping the dose because consumers do not see immediate change is a recipe for disaster. Some medications can take time to kick in.
Other directions, such as how to store the drug, fall into this category. Certain drugs are sensitive to heat or moisture, and need special attention to the store.
Besides the active ingredients of the drug, inactive ingredients preserve, color, or flavor the drug. It is essential to check this section too, as you may have allergies or predispositions to those ingredients.
On rare occasions, active ingredients of one substance can interact with inactive ingredients in other substances. Your drug warnings label should contain any information on known interactions.
Questions or Comments
This particular section is for consumers to access contact information if they have questions or concerns about the drug. As you might imagine, not all drug facts labels feature this.
Prescription Drug Labels
Prescription drug labels can be more complex than OTC drug labels. Like the United States, Canada does not regulate prescription drug labels. However, they do provide guidelines intended to ensure that labels are as similar as possible.
Sometimes this results in different pharmacies selling the same drug with different warnings. As there is no one form of a prescription drug label, we cannot provide an exhaustive breakdown.
However, generally, prescription labels feature the same Information as OTC labels. Prescription drugs also include your local pharmacy name, its address, and the phone number or contact details of the doctor that prescribed the medication. Any questions about your prescription are for your pharmacist.
Your prescription drug label should also include a unique number that identifies that particular medication. This is to prevent you from taking the wrong medication. Always double-check that you have the correct prescription yourself when picking it up from the pharmacy.
Prescription drug labels may also contain the following:
- Particular dosing schedule (i.e., morning vs. evening)
- Caution statements as required by law (usually beginning with ‘CAUTION’)
- A physical description of the medication
- The date of prescription from the pharmacy (‘date filled’)
- The registered pharmacist who filled the medication (‘RPH’)
- The manufacturer of the medication (‘MFR’)
Pharmacy Information Sheets
If the prescription drug label itself doesn’t communicate all the safety information for the drug - some pharmacies supply an additional information sheet.
Information sheets list important details in addition to the warnings, cautions, side effects, precautions, interactions, drug use information, and storage information.
Prescription drug warning labels sometimes cannot include all specific information relating to the drug. Be sure to read this through as it may contain certain information that concerns your situation.
This information is crucial for the user but fundamentally builds on the categories discussed above.
Always Read the Label
Prescription drug labels can be confusing to some consumers. Make sure you invest the time to understand what you are ingesting beforehand.
Buying medicine at a pharmacy isn’t a one-step process. It’s essential to understand and follow the information provided to you with your medication. Sometimes the way information on labels can be hard to understand or seem tedious.
Always make sure you first check that the prescription is only intended for you. After that, ensure that you follow instructions on the prescription strictly. If you have any doubts about the drug, contact your doctor or pharmacist before taking any medication.
Taking prescription drugs can help you improve your quality of life if you do so correctly. Careless or reckless consumption can lead to serious health problems and even death.
- Guidance Document: Labelling of Pharmaceutical Drugs for Human Use by the Canadian Minister of Health
- FDA Website on Generic Drug Facts
- Website of the Canadian Government: Access to Generic Drugs in Canada
- BBC News Article - Opioid Epidemic: The other public health crisis killing Canadians (2nd of September 2020)
- A Study from Northwestern University 2006: Study Finds Many Patients Don't Understand Prescription Medicine Labels