Health & Safety

July 13, 2012

Understand your prescription labels

By Capt. Kimberly A. Lowe
99th Medical Support Squadron

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — Prescription directions can be confusing for many patients, and misinterpreting the directions on a label could result in serious health injuries.

Directions should not be taken lightly so never be afraid to ask questions if you don’t understand them.

Before leaving your doctor’s office, have your doctor confirm how he or she would like you to take the medications. Then, when filling your prescription at the pharmacy, ask a pharmacist for additional instructions. Following these steps will help you take control of your own healthcare and reduce any confusion.

Some commonly misinterpreted labels include directions such as, “take three times a day.” Typically, unless your doctor directs otherwise, this means morning, noon and evening or roughly four to six hours apart while awake. Similarly, “take twice a day” usually means in the morning and evening. Remember, because medications are normally taken during your waking hours, you aren’t normally expected to divide doses equally during a 24-hour period if it would result in middle of the night doses.

Your doctor may also write a prescription for medication to be taken every six hours but not specify how many times a day. For some medications you wouldn’t be expected to take that dose, in the middle of the night. Don’t assume that is the case with all your medications. Some medications, such as antibiotics, must be taken a certain amount of times in a day, and you should discuss nighttime doses with your doctor.

Another frequently misunderstood label, “take with meals” can have several different interpretations. “What if I don’t eat breakfast or I eat four meals a day?” These directions are based on the assumption all patients eat three meals a day. Check with your doctor or pharmacist if you see these directions, since it can differ depending on the medication and if you skip meals. For example, some diabetic medications will have labels reading; “Take with meals” because they shouldn’t be taken if you skip a meal.

Don’t forget to pay attention to auxiliary stickers too, as they contain important information about the medications. There are some common auxiliary labels that shouldn’t be overlooked.

“Avoid prolonged sunlight.” Some medications can make you more sensitive to sunlight, and you may get sunburned from even just a short time out in the sun. Be sure to put on sunscreen and seek out the shade while taking a medication with this warning.

“Take on an empty stomach” is another common auxiliary sticker found on medication. Food can prevent some medications from working properly. These medications should be taken at least one hour before eating or two to three hours after eating. Conversely, some medications can irritate your stomach and taking with food or milk helps prevent this irritation.

Another common auxiliary label found on medication is, “Do not crush or chew; swallow whole.” At a quick glance, some may misinterpret this as don’t swallow whole or chew it up so it will dissolve. Make sure you read the entire auxiliary label to get the full information. Some medications shouldn’t be crushed, chewed or broken as it could cause you to get one large dose all at once rather than smaller doses during a longer period of time. In this case, you should be sure to swallow the pill whole.

“Limit alcoholic beverages” and “Do not drink alcoholic beverages.” Alcohol can enhance the negative side effects of some medications and can cause very severe reactions. Be aware of lesser known sources of alcohol such as cough syrup. With some medications you may have one to two drinks after four to six hours, but always check with your physician or pharmacist first.

Finally, another common label is, “Take with plenty of water.” Although you may be able to swallow your medicine with a small sip of water or just your saliva, some medications are very irritating to your esophagus and need that extra liquid to safely flush it through.

You should always double check with your doctor and pharmacist about how to take your medications, and remember to ask questions whenever something doesn’t make sense to you.




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