Medicine Labels: Ingredients, Directions & Purpose

Instructor: Rachel Torrens
We've many choices in America, including hundreds of over-the-counter medications from which to choose when we're sick. In this lesson, learn how to effectively read medication labels, allowing you to make the best choice to alleviate your symptoms.

Understanding Medicine Labels

Your eyes flutter open. You try to inhale, but your nose is clogged. You attempt to swallow, but it is a painful exertion. This is the terrible feeling of getting sick.

You drag yourself to the local mega-chain pharmacy and are confronted with a wall of various cold remedy products. Exhausted, you grab a bottle of multi-symptom relief cold medication and turn it over. You see this complicated label:

Drug label detailing active ingredients, uses, warnings, and directions for multi-symptom cold medication.

What do all these words mean? How are you ever going to be able to select the best product for your specific needs? Well, although a medication label may seem overwhelming, if you approach it section by section, it can be very helpful.

In this lesson, we will work our way through the above label examining in detail the active ingredients, uses, warnings, and directions. Each section contains specific information that will help you to understand how this medication works and how to take it appropriately.

Active Ingredients and Purpose

The first key to understanding a medication label is to assess a product's ingredients. Now, on average, an over the counter product can have over a dozen ingredients! But the manufacturers try to make it easier by listing the active ingredient or ingredients at the top of the label. An active ingredient is the ingredient(s) which will provide symptom relief.

Look again above at the label on the multi-symptom cold relief bottle you bought. You will see the following listed under active ingredients:

  • Guafenisin - Expectorant
  • Phenylephrine HCl - Decongestant
  • Dihphenhydramine - Antihistamine

The first word you see listed is the medication's generic name. If you scan your eyes to the right, on the same line, you will see the class of the medication. So in our example, guafenisin is the name of the first active ingredient, and it falls into a class of drugs known as expectorants. An expectorant helps to thin mucus so it is easier to expectorate. What is the name of the second active ingredient? Phenylephrine hydrochloride is correct! It falls into the classification of decongestant.

Uses and Warnings

Obviously, this information may be of limited use if you don't know the specific classes of drugs and each's purpose. For this reason, the next section of a drug label, usually entitled uses, translates the specific classes of drugs into practical uses. This section specifies all the symptoms that could be relieved by all the different active ingredients contained in the medication.

Back to our example, diphenhydramine is listed under the active ingredients as an antihistamine. Since an antihistamine aids in relieving nasal congestion and watery eyes, you would see these listed under the uses section.

Just below uses, warnings will be listed. Warnings include other medical conditions that would prohibit you safely taking this medication and also potentially dangerous side effects that you may experience if you do choose to take this medication.

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