woman reading drug label
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Drug Facts You Should Know

There’s a lot of important information that comes with the medicine you buy at a pharmacy. The Drug Facts panel on an over-the-counter med lets you know how to take it, what’s in it, and how it might make you feel. But the way that info is written can make it tricky to understand. Here's how to make sense of drug labels so you can avoid common, possibly dangerous mistakes.

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drug facts panel
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Active Ingredient and Purpose

Find this info at the top of the label on over-the-counter meds. It's the ingredient in the medicine that treats a symptom, along with the type of medication it is, like “antihistamine” or “pain reliever.” It also tells you how much of the drug is in each dose. Check this to make sure you don't take other drugs with the same ingredient and to understand what the product will do for you.

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uses panel
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Uses

This section gives you a snapshot of the symptoms or diseases that the drug can treat. For example, a pain-reliever label might say it eases toothaches, headaches, joint pain, and menstrual cramps. Always check this part when you buy a new medication to make sure it will do what you need it to do.

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warnings panel
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Warnings

This is one of the most important parts of the drug label, and it’s usually the largest. It gives you safety details about the medicine. You'll find four things here: who shouldn’t take the drug, when you should stop using it, when to call your doctor, and side effects you might have. It can help you check if it’s not safe to take with some health conditions or other medications.

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directions panel
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Directions

Check this part carefully. It tells you how much of the drug to take and how often to take it, called the dosage. For example, it may say to take two tablets every 4 to 6 hours. Never take more than the label says without talking to your doctor. The directions are grouped by age, so you know how much you or your child can use. You'll also get details about the maximum amount you should take in 1 day.

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other information panel
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Other Information

Heat and humidity can sometimes damage medications, so keeping them in your bathroom or in a car when the weather's warm may not be a good idea. This part of the label will tell you the right temperature range for storing the product. It also reminds you to make sure the package's safety seal hasn't been broken before you use it, which could be a sign of tampering.

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inactive ingredients panel
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Inactive Ingredients

These are the ingredients in a drug that don’t directly treat your symptoms. They might be preservatives, dyes, or flavorings. Always check this section if you or your child has food or dye allergies. Keep in mind that different brands of the same kind of drug may have different inactive ingredients.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 6/14/2017 Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on June 14, 2017

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SOURCES:

Know Your Dose: "How to Read Your Label."
Womenshealth.gov: "How To Read Drug Labels."
FDA: "Glossary of Terms," "OTC Drug Facts Label."
National Council on Patient Education and Information web site: "Tips on Safe Storage and Disposal of Your Prescription Medicines."
Consumer Reports: "Can You Read this Drug Label?"
News release, Northwestern University. 2006.

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on June 14, 2017

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.