| Thu, Feb 12, 2015 @ 09:00 AM

How to Read a Prescription Drug Label

Posted by Medicare Made Clear

prescription drug labelsDoctors write prescriptions for medications. Pharmacists fill the prescriptions. Patients take the medications.

From doctor to pharmacist to patient, information may get mixed up—just like in the old telephone game. That’s why drug labels are so important and why you need to know how to read them.

Let’s walk through what you can learn from drug labels.

Who Is The Prescription Drug For?

This may seem obvious, but it’s important to check the name on the label. You don’t want to be taking someone else’s drugs by mistake!

What is the Medication?

Drug labels usually show both the brand name and the generic name for medications. A prescription may be written for either version of the drug. Learn more about brand name and generic drugs.

Having both names on the label may help prevent taking a double dose of the same medication. This could happen if you somehow have two prescriptions for the same drug—one written for the generic version and one for the brand-name drug. You may help avoid mix-ups like this by filling all of your prescriptions at the same pharmacy.

What’s In The Prescription Drug Bottle?

The label tells you:

  • What form the drug is in. For example, it might say tablet (or TAB) or capsule (or CAP).
  • The dose in each unit (tablet, capsule, etc.). This is often given in milligrams (mg).
  • How many units are in the bottle

Some pharmacies include a picture or description of the actual tablet or capsule as well.

It’s a good idea to open the bottle right away to make sure what’s in it matches what the label says. If it doesn’t, tell the pharmacist.

How Do You Take The Prescription Drug?

Each pharmacy has its own way of writing directions on drug labels. The directions may be vague or specific. Read yours carefully and make sure you understand what you’re supposed to do.

For example, “Take 2 tablets twice daily” is rather vague. Does it just mean take 4 tablets a day? When do you take them? How? Specific directions such as “Take 2 tablets by mouth in the morning and 2 tablets by mouth 12 hours later” leave little room for confusion.

Ask the pharmacist or your doctor if you have questions. Misunderstandings may cause you to take medications in the wrong amounts, at the wrong times or in the wrong way. It’s really up to you to learn how to take your medications as prescribed.

What Else Do I Need To Know?

Drug labels also include the basic information you need to help manage your medications. This includes:

  • Prescription number
  • Doctor who prescribed the drug
  • Date the prescription was filled
  • How many refills are left
  • Expiration date
  • Warnings, such as do not drink, may cause drowsiness, etc.
  • Pharmacy contact information

As much as you may learn from drug labels, they are no substitute for your doctor or pharmacist. If you are confused or uncertain, don’t hesitate to ask.

For more information, explore MedicareMadeClear.com or contact the Medicare helpline 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227), TTY 1-877-486-2048.


Medicare Prescription Drug Plans: Learn what’s covered and what’s not.

Choosing a Medicare Prescription Drug Plan: Download this helpful guide.

Medicare.gov: Visit the official U.S. government site for Medicare.

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