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Medication Terms You Need to Know

Americans treat many of their everyday health problems themselves by taking over-the-counter (OTC) medicines. To use medicines safely, make sure you read, understand and follow the instructions carefully. Many of the words on medicine labels may be hard to understand. Use this guide of common terms used on OTC labels to help you choose and use medicines correctly.

Active ingredients: Ingredients that treat or cure symptoms. This is the drug or medicine that is in the product.

Acute: Pain or symptoms that come on rapidly and last for a short time.

Adverse reaction: Any unexpected bad reaction to a normal dose of a medicine; a side effect.

Analgesic: A medicine that relieves painful symptoms, especially headache, muscle soreness, and stiffness. Most nonprescription analgesics also reduce fever. Some analgesics are applied to the skin to relieve muscle pain.

Anaphylaxis: Severe sensitivity or reaction to something you might be allergic to, such as a bee sting; foods, including peas, peanuts, or tree nuts; or a drug. Symptoms can include a rash, swelling, difficulty breathing, and convulsions.

Antihistamine: A medicine that helps reduce allergy symptoms by blocking the action of histamine. Histamine is a substance in the body that can cause a runny nose, congestion, sneezing, red eyes, and itching.

Chronic: Conditions or symptoms that last a long time or keep happening.

Contraindication: A condition you have which makes a particular drug or treatment inadvisable or dangerous. For example, you shouldn't take decongestants if you have uncontrolled high blood pressure.

Drug interaction: When two or more medications are taken together and cause an unwanted reaction, or one interferes with the action of another medication. Drug-food/beverage interactions result from drugs reacting with foods or beverages. For example, mixing alcohol with some drugs may cause you to feel tired or slow your reactions. Drinking grapefruit juice can interfere with the effectiveness of some medicines.

Expiration date: Before this date, you can expect the medicine to retain its full strength and safety. You should throw away medicine that is past its expiration date.

Hypoallergenic: The medicine contains the fewest allergens possible to lessen the risk of allergic reactions.

Inactive ingredient: Any part of the medicine that doesn't help with healing; for example, added color or flavor in a medicine.

Nonsedating: A medicine that won't make you sleepy.

Topical: Medicines that are applied to the skin or hair, or wherever there are symptoms.

Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about the drugs you take. When your doctor prescribes a new drug, discuss all OTC and prescription drugs, dietary supplements, vitamins, botanicals, minerals, and herbals you take, as well as the foods you eat. Ask your pharmacist for the package insert or an informational brochure for each prescription drug you take. This medical information provides more information about potential drug interactions.

Before taking a drug, ask your doctor or pharmacist the following questions:

  • Can I take it with other drugs?

  • Should I avoid certain foods, beverages, or other products?

  • What are possible drug interaction signs I should know about?

  • How will the drug work in my body?

  • How will I know the drug is working?

  • Is there more information available about the drug or my condition (on the Internet or in health and medical literature)?

Remember that different OTC drugs may contain the same active ingredient. If you are taking more than one OTC drug, pay attention to the active ingredients used in the products to avoid taking too much of a particular ingredient. Under certain circumstances—such as if you are pregnant or breastfeeding—you should talk to your doctor before you take any medicine. Also, make sure you know what ingredients are contained in the medicines you take. Doing so will help you to avoid possible allergic reactions.

If you are not certain whether an OTC drug is safe for you to take, always ask your doctor or pharmacist.