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Reading Over-The-Counter Drug Labels

Did you know that more than 700 medications that can be purchased over the counter (OTC) today were once available only by prescription? While most of us think of OTC drugs as simple and harmless, they can actually be very potent medications. Taking improper amounts of these drugs - or combining them inappropriately - can be dangerous.

One way to prevent problems with OTC medications is to know how to read a drug label. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has developed a standardized format for OTC drug labels that can help you to get the information you need to use these medications safely.

The following are important sections of OTC drug labels:

  • Active Ingredient: This is the first item on the label, and it lists what is in the medication that helps to relieve your symptoms. There may be one or more active ingredients in an OTC medication, and the same ingredient may be present in two brands or types of medication.

    For example, acetaminophen is the active ingredient in many common pain relievers as well as in many cold medications. It's important not to take two medications with the same active ingredient, unless directed to do so by your health care provider.
  • Uses: Sometimes called indications, this area of the label tells you what symptoms or conditions the medication will help. In general, it's best to take medications that treat the symptoms you actually have, rather than attempting to address a variety of symptoms.

    For example, if you have a cold with a headache but not a cough, you can treat the headache with a simple pain reliever rather than taking a cold medication that contains ingredients to treat a cough, too.
  • Warnings: This part of the label tells you what other medications, food or situations you should avoid while taking the medication. For example, it may tell you to avoid driving or drinking alcoholic beverages when using the product.
  • Directions: Information here will help you to know how much of the medication you should take - and at what intervals you may take it. Directions may also specify a certain time of day or night that it's best to take a medication. It's important to follow directions exactly, unless directed otherwise by your health care provider.
  • Other information: Additional information about the product may be found here, such as how to properly it.
  • Inactive ingredients: This area will tell you what other ingredients are in the medication, such as minerals, flavorings or coloring. This is important to read, especially if you have allergies.
Over-the-counter medications can be safe and effective - but only if you read the label, follow all directions, and heed every warning. If you have questions about an OTC medication, ask your pharmacist to help you.