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How to Read Drug Labels The Right Way

Written by Stephanie Nera, RPh, PharmD · Pharmacology

Updated Dec 03, 2020

How to Read Drug Labels The Right Way

Knowing how to correctly read drug labels is an important skill. While a doctor’s prescription tells you what drug to buy, the drug label will guide you on its use and other essential information. It may seem like a simple task, however, many medication errors have occurred due to taking the wrong drug or using it incorrectly.

What are drug labels?

Drug labels are printed text on the containers and packaging of medications. These labels tend to be small yet include a lot of useful information. To simplify things, we will discuss the most essential parts to check before you purchase and use a drug.

It is important to note that the US FDA and Philippine FDA have different standards and formats, but generally contain the same information. This guide will focus on how to read local labels for drugs and medicine.

Product name

The product name should be the first thing that stands out on the label and packaging. In the interest of marketing, the brand name is usually recognizable at first glance. The generic name or main ingredient of the preparation should also be easy to read. 

In the Philippines, the generic name should be printed in a large font within an outlined box.

While the brand names and logos are easier to spot on the shelf, always check for the active ingredients and strengths. Some brand names are used for several preparations and you might accidentally get the wrong one.

Dosage form and strength

The next thing you need to identify on the label is the dosage form and strength. If you have a prescription, look for the medicine in the same strength and dosage form. Common dosage forms are tablets, capsules, syrups, lotions, ointments, and creams.

Strengths are written as numbers with units such as milligrams (mg), grams (g), ounces (oz.), milliliters (mL), and liters (L). If you need 200 mg tablets but there are only 100 mg tablets available in the pharmacy, it is possible to take two 100 mg tablets instead. 

However, not all dosage forms and strengths are interchangeable. Consult your doctor or pharmacist regarding substitutions. Never use a stronger dose than recommended. Always read drug labels for the correct strength before using it.

Indication, warnings, and storage conditions

The indication, which is what the drug is for, should be printed on the drug label and packaging. Examples of indications include for pain relief, for cough, and for fever.

Contraindications (when the product should not be used), precautions, and warning labels are required. Warnings include statements such as, “Keep out of reach of children” or “For external use only”. Read the drug label carefully before taking or giving a medication.

In addition, the storage conditions of the preparation should be printed. This includes any special instructions such as refrigeration, protection from light, and specific temperatures. In general, drugs can be stored at home the same way they were stored in the pharmacy.

Ingredients list

While the product name typically includes the active ingredients, the ingredients list will contain all the ingredients used in the preparation. This includes inactive substances such as dyes, preservatives, and perfumes. Active ingredients should have the amounts and units stated. The inactive ingredients do not need to have the amounts listed.

If you have allergies to certain substances, it would be wise to check the ingredients list before purchasing and using the preparation. If you see that there is an ingredient that you are allergic to, inform your doctor about it.

Approved languages for drug labels

Of course, how can people read drug labels if they cannot understand the language? In order to accurately and fully give product information, all labels and packaging must be in English or Filipino.

Products from other countries that are not in English or Filipino need to be relabeled using printed sticker labels or other methods of labeling. Any product inserts should also have an English or Filipino translation. This is especially important for the ingredients list and the directions for use.

Reading prescription versus OTC drug labels

Drug labels are required for both over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription drugs. The main difference is that prescription drugs must also clearly indicate the Rx symbol and a Caution Statement. 

The Caution Statement is, “Foods, Drugs, Devices, and Cosmetics Act prohibits dispensing without prescription”, and should be included on the box, package insert, and main label.

Key takeaways

The drug label gives you all the important information you need to know about the medications you are taking. Always double check that the drug label matches your prescription.

If you need help learning how to read drug labels, you can ask your pharmacist or other health professional.


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Written by

Stephanie Nera, RPh, PharmD


Updated Dec 03, 2020

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