Taking Medications: Misunderstanding Prescription Labels

Medication labels are supposed to be easy to read and understand. Yet, a survey published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found many patients routinely misunderstand prescription labels when taking medications. Investigators who conducted the study “demonstrated a high rate of misunderstanding instructions on prescription labels for 5 common medications. Although the highest rates of misunderstanding across each of the 5 bottle labels (13% to 48%) occurred among patients with the lowest literacy levels, misunderstanding was common even among those with the highest literacy levels (5% to 27%).”

This can be a serious problems because when taking medications, misunderstanding prescription labels can lead to serious consequences. So, to help ensure you know what the leabels means are some common warnings put on labels:

  • Avoid Exposure to Sunlight.  Many drugs increase a person’s sensitivity to sunlight and in some cases it only takes 10 minutes in the sun for skin irritations, burns, or rashes to appear. Some of the drugs that cause photosensitivity reactions are antihistamines, antibiotics, antidepressants, anti-psychotics, cardiovascular drugs, diuretics, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. If this warning appears on your medication label, make sure to wear a sunscreen or sunblock, and, if you need to know about the differences between them, read Sunblock Versus Sunscreen.
  • Do Not Chew or Crush.  Pills or medications that say this are usually extended-release medications, and they are created to be absorbed in the small intestines because their special coating helps them quickly pass through the stomach. So, if you crush or chew such pills you could get all the medication at once. If you want to cut a pill, the general rule is only cut pills that are scored.
  • Do Not Drink Alcoholic Beverages.  Medications with this warning mean DO NOT drink ANY liquor, not even a single drop. The reason why is because the drug can prevent your liver from processing the alcohol, and, in fact, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “alcohol-medication interactions may be a factor in at least 25 percent of all emergency room admissions.” Additionally, it is often the elderly who mix alcohol with drugs and suffer adverse effects.
  • Do Not Eat Grapefruit or Drink Grapefruit Juice While Taking This Medication.  Grapefruit juice or grapefruit can interact with some medications and cause too much medication to be absorbed. This can result in unpredictable consequences.
  • Limit Alcoholic Beverages.  Medications with this warning are included because alcohol can sometimes heighten the effects of the drugs. So, for instance, if the drug says “may cause sleepiness” or “may cause heartburn,” if you use alcohol with it, it can actually increase those side effects.
  • Take on an Empty Stomach.  Some medications need to be taken without anything—no vitamins, food, or milk—because they can interfer with the drug’s absorption. Furthermore, medications with this warning weren’t designed to be digested in the stomach, and, therefore, you need to make sure the medications are taken either one hour before meals or two hours after a meal.
  • Take with Food or Milk.  When taking medications with this warning, food or milk may help improve absorption of the medication or it may protect and coat the stomach and its lining. For instance, pain relievers are one example because if they are taken on an empty stomach, they can cause bleeding or ulcers.
  • Take with Plenty of Water.  Some medications are so strong they can actually burn a hole in the esophagus if they get stuck. To ensure that doesn’t happen, medications may carry a warning to drink plenty of water. So, take such medications with at least 1 cup (8 ounces) of water. After you take them you should also not lie down or recline for at least a half hour because the medication could come back up and might damage the esophagus.

There are many other prescription warnings than those highlighted here. So, you should always read the prescription warnings and labels thoroughly, and then follow directions closely. Always take medications as directed. If you have any questions, don’t understand exactly what a warning means, or have other concerns about your medication, talk to your doctor or your pharmacist.

1 Comment

  1. What an insightful post and an absolutely fantastic site you have here. Your blurb on decoding prescription medications is very helpful. I have long wondered about the effects of grapefruit and today, I found the answer. Thank you!

    Always so much fun to discover fellow local SF Bay Area bloggers.

    -Francesca

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