Reviewed by Andrew Seibert on December 07, 2011


Michell Redding, PharmD, clinical assistant professor, community pharmacy residency director, Mercer University College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. FDA: “The New Over-the-Counter Medicine Label: Take a Look. ”FDA: “OTC labeling questions and answers. ”FDA: “Questions and Answers on Using OTC Human Drug Products Containing Analgesic/Antipyretic Active Ingredients Safely. ”Mayo Clinic: “Pain medications: Read the label before you buy. ”U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Over-the-Counter Medicines. ”Institute for Safe Medication Practices. WebMD Medical Reference: “Pain Management: Pain Medications. ”WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise: “Nonprescription Medicines and Products.”

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Video Transcript

Michell Redding, Pharm.D.: The label itself is to make sure that the patient knows how to take the medicine and what to expect from the medication.

Narrator: We asked professor of pharmacy, Michell Redding to give a tutorial on how to interpret the drug facts label. The "active ingredient" is listed first:

Michell Redding, Pharm.D.: The active ingredient of a medication is what that medicine really is.

Narrator: With over-the-counter pain relievers there are two types of active ingredients: Acetaminophen and NSAIDS – non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. NSAIDS include drugs such as aspirin, ibuoprofen, and naproxen sodium. Next on the label is uses:

Michell Redding, Pharm.D.: If a patient is having a headache and they're looking at uses and the uses say for allergies, then you're not going to take that medicine. So it just tells you specifically what that medicine is used for.

Narrator: Under "warnings" you'll find safety information. It lists other medicines, foods or conditions to avoid if taking the pain reliever…and when to consult with your doctor or pharmacist before using.

Michell Redding, Pharm.D.: So the warning protects you if you have a particular disease or a particular issue that this medication could cause harmful effects with.

Narrator: The Food and Drug Administration now requires these popular pain killers to include warnings about possible risks such as stomach bleeding and liver damage when not taken as directed... That's why it's so important to follow the label's "directions" and not exceed the maximum dose listed for a 24-hour period.

Michell Redding, Pharm.D.: It'll tell you the safest way to use that medication.

Narrator: It's also important to know the generic names of the various pain medications to avoid accidental overdose. For example, many arthritis creams or rubs contain salicylates, an aspirin like class of NSAIDs. Combine a rub with an oral aspirin and you could reach your maximum daily dose of aspirin before you know it.

Michell Redding, Pharm.D.: It doesn't matter what application you're using, it's still ultimately going to get into your bloodstream.

Narrator: "Other information" typically tells you how to store the medication – and sometimes directs you to the product's expiration date.

Michell Redding, Pharm.D.: The expiration date is really important because it's the only thing that certifies that medication is what it is up until that particular date.

Narrator: The "inactive ingredients" list other chemicals that don't treat pain, but provide color, flavor or preserve the medicine. This is important for people with allergies to food or certain chemicals.

Michell Redding, Pharm.D.: Consumers really need to look at the label and make sure they understand and when they don't understand specific parts of the label then walk over to the pharmacy and ask the pharmacist to explain it a little bit more.

Narrator: Don't forget, in addition to dispensing medications, pharmacists are there to answer your questions. For WebMD, I'm Rhonda Rowland.