How to Read Prescription Drug Labels

Easily read a prescription drug label.

Though we may not always notice, pharmacists serve a vital role in our healthcare team, ensuring that prescriptions make sense, get dispensed correctly, and don't interfere with each other. This Saturday, January 12 is National Pharmacist Day, and what better way is there to appreciate our pharmacists than to take a closer look at some of the information they help us understand every day?

Prescription Drug Labels Confuse Patients

If a prescription drug label has ever confused you, you're far from alone. Studies show that more than half of patients misinterpret the information on their prescription labels, leading to a number of potentially dangerous consequences. In fact, label confusion is such a problem that both CVS and Target have used big-name designers to overhaul their systems.

Even if you don't shop at either of those pharmacies, you can easily learn how to read a prescription drug label.

Understanding Prescription Label Types & Content

Prescription drugs come with two very different labels: an abbreviated label for the bottle and an extensive label for the bag. Though they present some of the same information, both labels contain important sections designed to ensure the safety and efficacy of prescriptions. Label content tends to differ slightly between pharmacies, but they present the same general topics.

Prescription Bottle Labels

The bottle label holds the day-to-day details necessary to take the prescription effectively as well as warnings about the most common or dangerous interactions and side effects. These details include:

Label Field Description
Patient Name Prevents patients from accidentally taking someone else's similar looking pills
Drug Name & Dose Ensures patients know they've received the prescription they discussed with their physician
Pill Appearance Helps patients confirm that the pill in their bottle is in fact the pill they were prescribed
Patient Specific Instructions How many pills to take, how often, with or without food
Select Side Effects & Interactions The most common and/or important side effects, but not necessarily every single one
Quantity How many pills are in the prescription
Refills Remaining How many times you can replace this prescription before checking in with your physician
Expiration Date The date on which all pills should be discarded, because they may no longer be effective
Pharmacy Contact Information How and where to get refills

Prescription Bag Labels

The bag label reads a bit like an encyclopedia of information specific to the individual prescription. It has all of the content on the bottle label plus extensive sections devoted to the following topics:

Label Field Description
Active Ingredients The part of the prescription that's doing the heavy lifting - helps prevent accidental overdose from combinations of active ingredients (like acetaminophen)
Common Brand Names Other names or brands of the same prescription
Uses/Indications The FDA cleared application for this specific drug - makes patients aware if they've been prescribed something for off-label use
General Use Instructions The FDA cleared instructions for use - makes patients aware if they've been instructed to use a prescription in an unapproved way in terms of quantity or frequency of dosing
All Known Side Effects Any documented side effects from the approval or post-market surveillance processes
Warnings Conditions or behaviors that may cause certain side effects, require modified prescribing protocols, or render the prescription unsafe or ineffective
Drug Interactions Any prescriptions or common supplements that may interfere with the action of the prescription, enhancing, inhibiting, or causing unwanted or severe side effects
Overdose Information What to do in case of overdose
Additional Notes Any additional information the manufacturer deems important to the patient
What To Do After A Missed Dose Instructions for handling a missed dose of medication - ensures patients don't take more or less medication than is safe in the event of a missed dose
Storage Information Environmental conditions known to maintain drug activity through the listed expiration date


Getting The Most From Prescription Labels

Though it's easy to summarize the information in prescription labels, patients can still be overwhelmed with the sheer amount of text. Medical consultants suggest the steps below to ensure safe and effective use of prescriptions.

  • Confirm basic prescription information.
    • How much will be taken, at what time, and how often?
  • Understand food and supplement interactions.
    • Should any foods be avoided?
    • Do any vitamins / supplements interfere with or change the
    • behavior of the drug?
    • Is it acceptable to drink alcohol while taking this drug?
    • Do any other common prescription drugs (or any of mine) interfere with this one?
  • Understand possible side effects and their severity.
    • What are the most common side effects?
    • What are the most serious side effects, and how would I recognize them?
  • Find out if and when it is safe to discontinue the drug.
    • Do I need to finish this prescription in its entirety, or can it be stopped once symptoms subside?
  • Check for black box warnings.
    • Does this drug come with a black box warning?
    • If so, what does that warning mean for my individual medical and prescription situation?

Understanding Black Box Warnings

The FDA reserves its most serious warning, the boxed warning, for drugs or medical devices carrying what it deems to be a significant risk of serious or life-threatening side effects. Such a warning doesn't necessarily render a drug unsafe, but it does warrant a conversation between patients and prescribing physicians. This can help patients maintain vigilance in monitoring symptoms and seek timely medical help in the event of a serious complication.

Despite their seriousness, studies show that physicians don't always discuss boxed warnings with their patients, making it even more important for patients to investigate drug warnings for themselves. You can always find boxed warnings on the prescription bag label, and you can discuss what they mean for you with your pharmacist or physician.

Still Confused About Prescription Labels?

That's totally understandable, especially if you take more than one prescription. If you still have questions after taking the steps above, speak with your pharmacist, and ask every question that comes to mind. They went to school for years to understand the intricacies of every prescription  you may take, and they are fully prepared to keep answering questions until your mind is at ease with your prescription plan. And don't forget to wish them a happy National Pharmacist Day!

Authored by Katy Moncivais, Ph.D.Medical Editor
Photo of Katy Moncivais, Ph.D.
Katy Moncivais holds a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from The University of Texas at Austin. She’s an experienced Regenerative Medicine Consultant with a demonstrated history of working in the hospital & healthcare industry. Skilled in adult stem cells, medical devices, biomechanics, bacterial and mammalian cell culture, and regenerative medicine, she provides guidance on an array of topics affecting consumers. In her role at, Dr. Moncivais works alongside the writing and research staff to help deliver fact-based news stories to consumers. Her unique professional history alongside her rigorous educational background allows her to contribute to a variety of consumer-focused topics with a fresh perspective. In addition, Dr. Moncivais reviews portions of medically driven content to ensure scientific accuracy.
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