Skip to content
    Font Size
    A
    A
    A

    Off-Label Drug Use: What You Need to Know

    Prescription drugs are often prescribed for uses other than what the FDA has approved. Find out why.
    By
    WebMD Feature

    The next time your doctor writes you a prescription, consider this: The medication may not be approved for your specific condition or age group.

    But you probably shouldn't call the medical board. The practice, called "off-label" prescribing, is entirely legal and very common. More than one in five outpatient prescriptions written in the U.S. are for off-label therapies.

    Recommended Related to Drugs and Herbs

    Questions for the Pharmacist When Filling a New Prescription

    Is this exactly what my doctor prescribed? How often should I take this drug? What should I do if I miss a dose? Does it matter what time of day I take this drug? Is there anything I should avoid while taking this drug (such as driving or alcohol)? How will it interact with other prescription or over-the-counter drugs I am taking? How will it interact with vitamins, herbal supplements, or foods? What side effects should I watch for? What should I do if I have a bad re...

    Read the Questions for the Pharmacist When Filling a New Prescription article > >

    "Off-label" means the medication is being used in a manner not specified in the FDA's approved packaging label, or insert. Every prescription drug marketed in the U.S. carries an individual, FDA-approved label. This label is a written report that provides detailed instructions regarding the approved uses and doses, which are based on the results of clinical studies that the drug maker submitted to the FDA.

    “Many people may be surprised to know that the FDA regulates drug approval, not drug prescribing, and ... doctors are free to prescribe a drug for any [reason they think is medically appropriate],” says G. Caleb Alexander, MD, MS, a medical ethics advocate and assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago Medical Center. "Off-label use is so common, that virtually every drug is used off-label in some circumstances."

    Unaware of Off-Label Usage

    Despite the prominence of off-label drug use, experts say few patients are aware that they are receiving a drug off-label. And doctors are not required to tell a patient that a drug is being used off-label.

    Atlanta suburbanite Michelle Murphy was stunned to learn nadolol, the beta-blocker medicine she had been taking every day for several years to prevent migraines, was not actually approved for that use.

    "It’s almost like we are test subjects, being reassured that everything will be fine because it worked to help people in studies that were taking it, but not exactly for what we are taking it for," Murphy says.

    Benefits of Off-Label Drug Use

    Off-label prescribing isn't necessarily bad. It can be beneficial, especially when patients have exhausted all other approved options, as may be the case with rare diseases or cancer.

    According to the American Cancer Society, cancer treatment often involves using certain chemotherapy drugs off-label, because a chemotherapy drug approved for one type of cancer may actually target many different types of tumors. Off-label use of a drug or combination of drugs often represents the standard of care.

    1 | 2 | 3 | 4

    Hot Topics

    WebMD Video: Now Playing

    Click here to wach video: Dirty Truth About Hand Washing

    Which sex is the worst about washing up? Why is it so important? We’ve got the dirty truth on how and when to wash your hands.

    Click here to watch video: Dirty Truth About Hand Washing

    Popular Slideshows & Tools on WebMD

    disciplining a boy
    Types, symptoms, causes.
    fruit drinks
    Eat these to think better.
    Balding man in mirror
    Treatments & solutions.
    No gym workout
    Moves to help control blood sugar.
    Remember your finger
    Are you getting more forgetful?
    acupuncture needle on shoulder
    10 tips to look and feel good.
    Close up of eye
    12 reasons you're distracted.
    birth control pills
    Which kind is right for you?
    embarrassed woman
    Do you feel guilty after eating?
    woman biting a big ice cube
    Habits that wreck your teeth.
    pacemaker next to xray
    Treatment options.
    Pink badge on woman chest to support breat cancer
    Myths and facts.

    Pollen counts, treatment tips, and more.

    It's nothing to sneeze at.

    Loading ...

    Sending your email...

    This feature is temporarily unavailable. Please try again later.

    Thanks!

    Now check your email account on your mobile phone to download your new app.

    Women's Health Newsletter

    Find out what women really need.