5 Things to Look For in a Prescription Medication Label

January 30 2012 – ajd042285

5 Things to Look For in a Prescription Medication Label

According to a 2006 Institute of Medicine report, about 1.5 million preventable medication errors are made each year.


Prescription drugs are a double-edge sword. They can treat and manage diseases, making it possible to lead a better life. But if you take them incorrectly, forget to take them, or take them with other drugs that could diminish or exaggerate their effect, there could be serious and dangerous consequences. More than 500,000 Americans misinterpret instructions on a prescription drug label every year, leading to millions of needless hospital admissions and emergency room visits.

Details of what is on the label, other than the patient’s name and dosage instructions, vary by state. You may be sent home with pages upon pages of instructions and warnings about the drug you are taking. This is helpful information if you read it, but the print may too small or the language too technical to interpret, so most people rely solely on the information printed on the label.

That’s why it’s helpful to have easy-to-read and easy-to-understand labels. Some pharmacies have tried to help consumers. For example, triangular containers that stand on their caps leave a wide area on the front and back for information in large typeface, including multiple warnings and instructions. There may also be a color-coded system that makes it easier for family members to distinguish one person’s medication from another’s.

How can you protect yourself against errors? Here are some Things to Look For in a Prescription Medication Label, from some authorities that set standards for prescription medications – the U.S. Pharmacopeia and the Institute for Safe Medicine Practices. You may be able to find a pharmacy that adheres to some of their suggestions.

  1. Drug information is typed in easy-to-read 12-point type, about the size of which you see here. Your name, drug name, and drug instructions should be included in the largest type.
  2. Warnings typed directly onto patient labels in large typeface. The colorful warning stickers that sometimes appear on the sides of the bottle are read by fewer than 10 percent of people, according to research.
  3. Both the generic and brand name of the drug need to be listed.  This will help you know if you have been prescribed the same drug from two different doctors; one who prescribed the brand name and one who prescribed the generic version.
  4. Images or physical descriptions of the pills in the container. It’s easy to spot a mistake if you see a picture of a round white pill, but inside the bottle you see an oval-shaped blue one.
  5. No extra zeroes. This means that 5 mg of a medication should not be written as “5.0.” This could lead to a patient mistakenly remembering the dosage as 50 mg instead of 5 mg.

Reading and understanding your medication labels can help you successfully manage your health.


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