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Knowing how to read medicine labels saves lives

By Blue Cross NC | October 22, 2021 | Insurance Education, Simplifying Care

Senior woman talking on a phone and looking at the label on a medication bottle to ask about label and instructions side effects.

Medication errors causes thousands of deaths every year. More than 30% of those errors are the result of confusing medicine labels.1

If you’ve taken a lot of prescription medications or been a caregiver for someone who does, this might not surprise you. The average American reads at the 8th grade level, but medicine descriptions are written for college graduates.2 Then there’s the small print, the acronyms, the hard-to-find warning labels… Plus, the needlessly confusing instructions (I’m looking at you, “Take two tablets twice a day.”)

It’s no wonder patients accidentally take the wrong dose at the wrong time.

If this has happened to you, you’re in good company. One study found that 88% of people find medicine labels confusing.4 But you may be at a higher risk of a medication error if you: 5

  • Are 65 or older
  • Have a chronic illness (because more medications means more opportunities to make a mistake)
  • Live under the poverty line
  • Speak English as a second language

This calls for a redesign of medicine labels. It calls for simple, clear language and explicit instructions. But until we see better instruction labels, it’s important to learn how to read the ones we have.

One key problem is that drug labels contain so much information that people don’t know where to look.5 So instead of breaking down each section, they just don’t read any of it.

The good news is that most medicine labels follow a similar design. If we can get familiar with the basic format, we’re more likely to at least know where to look for instructions and important warnings.

Here’s a diagram of the sections you’ll see on most medicine labels:

Active ingredients

This section lists the ingredients that make the drug work. It usually also includes the medicine’s purpose.

Uses

Uses shows what symptoms the drugs can treat (like headache, fever, etc.). Read this section to make sure this medicine will do what you need it to do.

Warnings

Warnings details important safety information and any severe side effects that could occur. It also includes drugs that might interact badly with this one. It also tells you when you should call your doctor or pharmacist.

Directions

This section indicates how much of the medicine you should take and how often. Directions might be different for kids than for adults, so make sure you look for instructions by age if you’re giving medicine to your child. It’s important not to take more than the recommended amount of any medicine.

Other information

This section includes how to store the medicine. Should it be refrigerated? Does it need to be stored in a cool, dry place? “Other information” will tell you that.

Inactive ingredients

These are the ingredients not listed in the first section. If you have allergies to dyes, preservatives or flavorings, this is the section to check.

Questions or concerns

This section, usually at the bottom of the label, provides contact information for when you have questions or comments about the medicine.