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What to Look for on OTC Drug Labels

Medication errors—taking the wrong medication, or the right medication too frequently, or in the wrong amount—can be dangerous.

According to the FDA, knowing how to make use of over-the-counter (OTC) drug labels can help you protect yourself and your family from harm.

Read carefully

Always read the label. All OTC medicine labels have detailed usage and warning information to help you choose and use the products.

Look for the following information:

  • Active ingredient: The therapeutic substance or medicine that is in the product; amount of active ingredient per dose

  • Purpose: Product action or category, such as antihistamine, antacid, or cough suppressant

  • Uses: Symptoms or diseases the product can treat or prevent

  • Warnings: When not to use the product; conditions that may require advice from a doctor before taking the product; possible side effects; interactions with other medications that can occur; when to stop taking the product; and when to contact a doctor

  • Directions: Specific age categories, how much or how many to take, how to take, and how often and how long to take. Note that there may be different instructions, depending on the age of the person who will use the medication.

  • Other information: How to store the product properly and information about certain ingredients, such as the amount of calcium, potassium, or sodium the product contains

  • Inactive ingredients: Substances such as colors, flavors, or fillers that do not contribute to the action of the medication

  • *Warning: Look for alcohol or sugars such as sugar, glucose, fructose, or corn syrup in the inactive ingredients list.

Other details

The label also tells you:

  • Expiration date: This may be in a different location on the product, such as on the bottom of the bottle, on the box, or on the crimped end of a tube of ointment.

  • Lot or batch code

  • Net quantity of contents: This is the total amount of medicine, number of ounces or grams, or number of tablets.

  • What to do if an overdose occurs

If you read a medication label and still have questions, ask your doctor, nurse, pharmacist, or other health care professional for advice.