If you’re like 82 percent of Americans, you take at least one
medicine each week. Whether you’re reaching for a prescription
(Rx) pain reliever for a backache or an over-the-counter (OTC)
medicine for a stuffy nose, you need to know what you’re
taking. By reading and following the label directions before
you take a pill, you’ll learn key facts to help you safely use the
Adverse drug events are the reason for 700,000 emergency
room visits in the United States each year. What can go wrong?
For one, medicines can interact with each other to cause an
adverse reaction. Aspirin, for example, isn’t recommended for
people taking a Rx blood thinner like warfarin (brand name
Coumadin®). This is because both medicines slow blood clotting,
which could cause excessive bleeding. Reading and following the
label can help you avoid taking the wrong medicine.
Many Rx and OTC medicines can have the same active
ingredients. For example, you’ll find acetaminophen, the active
ingredient in Tylenol®, in more than 600 OTC and Rx medicines.
These include cough and cold products, allergy medicines, pain
relievers and sleep aids. If taken as directed, acetaminophen is
safe and effective for reducing pain and relieving fever. But if you
don’t read and follow the label and take more than one medicine
that contains acetaminophen, you could take too much. This can
put you at risk for liver damage.
“Reading and following the label is an important safeguard
when taking medicine,” says Janet P. Engle, Pharm.D., Ph.D.,
professor and head of the Department of Pharmacy Practice at
the University of Illinois College of Pharmacy in Chicago. Here
are some key label facts that can help you take your medicine
correctly and avoid potentially life-threatening side effects.
DECODING THE OTC DRUG FACTS LABEL
All OTC medicines have a standard Drug Facts label, which is
regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It tells
you how much of a medicine to take and when. It also tells you
whether it’s safe to use with other medicines, along with other
important information. Here’s a
Active Ingredients: Lists the
ingredients of a medicine that make
it work on the illness or symptom it’s treating. It also lists the amount
of the drug in each dose. Many medicines have just one active
ingredient. But a combination medicine, which treats more than one
symptom, may have two or more. As a general rule, don’t take more
than one medicine with the same active ingredient. Doing so can
put you at risk for overdose.
Uses: Describes the symptoms the medicine treats. “If the
symptoms listed are similar on different medicines, such as
‘sneezing, runny nose, itchy, watery eyes,’ call your doctor or talk
to the pharmacist before taking [the medicines] to avoid possibly
doubling up on similarly acting drugs,” Engle says.
Warnings: Tells you when a medicine shouldn’t be used. It
also tells you when you should talk to a doctor or pharmacist
before taking it. Any common side effects that may happen are
listed. It also tells you what other medicines or substances to
avoid while taking the medicine.
Directions: Tells you the amount of medicine to take and
how often to take it. It also tells you how much you can take in
one day. Don’t take more than the recommended dose on the
label. Also, don’t take it for more days than the label recommends.
“Just because one pill is good doesn’t mean two is better,” Engle
says. Taking more than the recommended dose won’t bring you
faster relief. Instead, it could put you at risk of an overdose.
Other information: Describes how to store the medicine.
“If it says ‘protect from excessive moisture or heat,’ avoid storing
the medicine in a bathroom where you take showers or right
next to the stove,” Engle says. Instead, keep the medicine in a
cabinet that’s away from heat and moisture. If you have children
or pets, keep it on a high shelf in a closet. If you need to take
your medicine each morning and you don’t have kids, it’s OK to
store your medicine next to your cereal bowl. This can help you
remember to take it. But don’t forget to put your medicines up
BY SANDRA GORDON