Decoding Drug Labels

Warning Label - Grapefruit

Understanding Over the Counter Drug Labels

The purpose of a drug label is to share important information in a manner that is easily understood. Drug labels are supposed to help us better understand how and when to take our medication. Yet, often the label just adds to our confusion, especially for prescription medications but also for more common over the counter (OTC) drugs.

Why do I have to take this in the morning? What if I take more than the recommended amount? My son’s birthday is in three days, can he take the higher dose? If you find your medication labels are contributing more to your stress levels than to your understanding of the medicine you are taking, keep reading.

Common Medication Labels

If you’re purchasing OTC medication, your condition is likely not life threatening. The labels on OTC drugs are regulated by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and will include the following information:

  • Active Ingredient
  • Uses
  • Warnings
  • Inactive Ingredients
  • Purpose
  • Directions
  • Other Information

The label, box or bottle will also tell you the expiration date, batch code (manufacturer information), quantity of contents and who to call in the case of an overdose.

What to Look at First

The first thing you should examine when comparing medication is the active ingredient. After a quick Google search, you can quickly identify if the medicine is suited to best help your symptoms. For example, Dextromethorphan is a cough suppressant and Oxymetazoline HCl is a nasal decongestant.

Many pharmacies offer OTC medications in their generic brand name. For example, Walgreens stores will carry the brand names Tylenol, Nyquil and BENGAY, but they also carry medicines in their store brand name, Nice, that are essentially the same thing at a cheaper price.

Know What You’re Putting in Your Body

A study challenged the knowledge of 45 adults, asking them what the main ingredient was in the medications they used to manage their pain for headaches and backaches. The doctor who coordinated the study called the results “alarming”:

  • 31% recognized that Tylenol contains acetaminophen
  • 75% recognized that Bayer contains aspirin
  • 47% recognized Motrin contains ibuprofen
  • 19% recognized that Aleve’s active ingredient is naproxen sodium
  • 19% recognized Advil contains ibuprofen

Before taking any medication, you should do your research to determine which active ingredient is best for your symptoms.  Do not solely rely on the information printed on the drug label.  After all, drug companies are businesses and the main goal of a business is to make a profit.

Common Questions About OTC Drug Labels

Can I take expired medicine?

It can be tempting to take medicine past the expiration date, but it’s not recommended. Although the medicine may not be harmful, the active ingredient has expired and may not relieve your symptoms.  You should check your medicine cabinet every six months to safely discard any expired drugs.

What happens if I take more than the recommended dose?

Well, that depends on your body and the state of your health, but unless you have the blessing of a doctor, you should not take more than the recommended dose. Remember that medicine is not natural; it takes energy for your body to digest and process the chemicals. If you are not getting the relief you need, talk to a doctor about a prescription that might help more than OTC solutions.

What if the Drug Fact Label is missing?

If you purchase medication without a label, you should consider it tainted and unusable. The FDC advises that you contact the drug company to report tampering. If the Drug Fact Label gets wet or fades with time, a quick Google search can help you determine the main ingredients. However, if the expiration date is missing, you should properly dispose of the medicine and purchase it again. Learn how to dispose of expired medication or medication that you no longer need.

Additional Resources





  • Drug Label, by Sunny Nagra, available on iTunes for free
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