Do you ever feel like you need a medical degree just to decipher drug labels? You’re not alone. It’s hard enough to determine what medication you need to, say, stop a cough—expectorant or cough suppressant? But once you determine that, there are myriad choices to make, between types of medications and brands. If you know what to look for, though, drug labels offer lots of clues about what you need.
“As a physician, I can read the box and understand the medical terminology,” says Dr. Jennifer Collins, assistant professor specializing in allergy, asthma and immunology at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary (NYEEI). “But as a consumer, reading drug labels can be difficult. Doing a little homework before you get to the drugstore can make all the difference.”
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Here are five terms commonly found on drug labels. Understanding them—and the rules guiding their use—can help you make the smartest choice as a patient.
Supplement. When you’re browsing the drugstore, it’s crucial to know if the product you’re purchasing is an over-the-counter (OTC) medication or a “supplement”—the catch-all term for a vitamin, mineral, herb or botanical taken for health purposes. Unlike OTC meds, supplements are not subject to strict labeling restrictions by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, though the organization does impose some rules. (A supplement cannot claim to cure any disease, for example.) “You can say pretty much anything you want on a supplement label—it doesn’t have to be proven,” says Collins. “That’s important for you to know as a patient. It puts the onus on you to do your research.” One word often used on supplement labels that’s essentially meaningless: “natural.” There are no rules for its use, so a company can use it without consequence. Don’t be fooled into thinking that makes it harmless.
Clinically Proven. You may see this very scientific-sounding term disappearing from drug labels as the FDA cracks down on its misuse, for supplements as well as OTC medications. But this is also a case where you can do your homework. Often products making this claim provide background information on their websites, sometimes citing the studies in question. If not, you can Google the product name or its active ingredient to try to independently verify the claim. Look for large peer-reviewed studies that have been published in medical journals, as opposed to smaller-scale research efforts paid for by the company itself.
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Warnings. As part of an effort to make drug labels easier to read, the FDA now requires all OTC medications to have a “warnings” section that encompasses both possible interactions and side effects. As such, many OTC meds include a long list of scary-sounding possible side effects.
“If, as a patient, I call the company and say, ‘I felt nauseated after I took this drug,’ even if I have the flu, the company is required to report that to the FDA,” says Collins. Don’t let a lengthy list of side effects on drug labels prevent you from popping a pain reliever next time you have a headache, but do call your doctor immediately if you experience a serious reaction, such as vomiting or rapid heartbeat.
Purpose. Not to be confused with “use,” which describes the symptoms or conditions an OTC drug treats, the word “purpose” on drug labels refers to the class of drug, like “antihistamine” or “decongestant.” This is crucial information when deciding what kind of medication to take. “Drug companies use very generic terms like ‘cold’ or ‘runny nose’ to describe symptoms, so that people don’t know exactly what they should take,” Collins says. Again, go to the drugstore armed with information on what you’re looking for—an antihistamine treats allergies at their source by blocking histamines, for example, while a decongestant simply helps drain congestion and relieve sinus pressure. If you’re unsure what you need, ask the pharmacist for advice.
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Prescription Strength. You might be wary of products that used to be dispensed only with a prescription but now can be purchased over the counter, like Zyrtec for allergies or Prevacid for heartburn. But actually, those medications may be some of the safest on the shelves.
“It’s a very, very rigorous process to go over-the-counter,” says Collins. “The way the FDA regulates that transition, you have to apply for it and do a lot of clinical trials. So in general, those medications are very safe.”