Do You Know Your Label ABCs?

Once a doctor prescribes medication, the patient must take the drug consistently and as instructed for the best results. The prescription label, while small, contains words, phrases, or abbreviations with big meanings. Pharmacists explain how the medication should be used, but this is sometimes forgotten. At home, the patient has no choice but to refer to the label for guidance. Labels are essential in identifying who the medication belongs to, the dose prescribed, how to take the medication, and tips to avoid prescription drug abuse. Knowing the ABCs of a prescription label is vital for medication adherence.


A is for acronyms and abbreviations

Prescription labels are small, so the goal is to pack as much vital information as possible. Like doctors, the pharmacy field has a lexicon of acronyms and abbreviations. Many abbreviations have Latin or Neo-Latin origins. For instance, quater in die (QID) means to take the medication 4 times per day. Post cibum (PC) means after food. Some labels use quaque sexta hora (Q6H) or quaque octava hora (Q8H) to indicate daily frequency. Abbreviations are also used to designate the condition the medication will treat. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), diabetes mellitus (DM), and urinary tract infection (UTI) are common examples. Combining these abbreviations can help people determine how the prescription should be used. These are just some of the many prescription abbreviations that can show up on a bottle. Look closely at each word and ask the pharmacist for guidance as needed.

B is for big or small prints

Prescription labels contain both large and small prints with specific information. Along with the patient’s name and the name of the drug, the instructions are also printed in larger or smaller print. Other abbreviations come in small print, such as microgram (mcg), which can be interpreted as milligram (mg) when reading too quickly. Other terms come in lowercase and uppercase, such as half-strength (HS), which can be mistaken for hora somni (hs) or at bedtime. An incorrect interpretation of the label can lead to overdosing or using the medicine at the wrong times. To avoid confusion, ask for a label with a larger print or use a magnifying tool to read the label properly.

C is for cautionary tales

Prescription labels also contain warnings and list possible side effects to guide patients on correctly using the drug. Pharmacists often explain drug interactions and side effects to patients. However, the label can serve as a reminder of what to consider when taking the medication. The label at the back of the bottle may use abbreviations or medical terms for common symptoms. Read and understand the information on the labels before taking any medication. Ask the pharmacist or report any side effects to a doctor when in doubt.

D is for directions

Patients must take prescription medicine at the right time and in the correct dosage. The label will state the dosage instructions, often combining numbers and abbreviations. Some might contain abbreviations for pro re nata (PRN), which means as needed. Other common phrases include ter die sumendus (TDS), meaning take by mouth 3 times a day, or quaque ante meridiem (qAM), meaning every morning. Read the instructions carefully, and confirm the information with a pharmacist if there is any confusion.

E is for Expiration Dates

Sometimes, the label will have expiration dates for the drug, not the prescription. The patient is expected to take the medication over a specified period. However, due to non-adherence or other complications, this is not always the case. Many drugs have long shelf lives, and some even last well beyond expiry. Yet, the expiration date serves multiple purposes. First, in the event the date passes, this is a signal that the prescription needs to be changed or reviewed. The expiry date also indicates that the potency or safety of the drug cannot be guaranteed. Continuing to take the medication after expiration can lead to poor absorption or unwanted side effects, so take note of the date.

Get prescription savvy for optimal health

Tiny prescription labels can be confusing and complicated to understand. The patient is not required to know the entire pharmacy jargon library. However, understanding the basics that pertain to the prescribed medicine can help with adherence. The codes and abbreviations used help to place vital information on the bottle for adequate identification. When in doubt, speak with the pharmacist for a deeper understanding of what the label is attempting to explain.


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