Health Information

What to Look for on OTC Drug Labels

Medication errors — taking the wrong medication or the right medication too often, 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. Even though the print may be very small, 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 medicine that is in the product and the amount of active ingredient per dose

  • Purpose. Product action or category like antihistamine, antacid, or cough suppressant

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

  • Warnings. This is when not to use the product and includes conditions that may need advice from a health care provider 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 health care provider

  • 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, like the amount of calcium, potassium, or sodium the product contains

  • Inactive ingredients. Substances like colors, flavors, or fillers that do not contribute to the action of the medication. Some products may contain sugars like sugar, glucose, fructose, or corn syrup that some people need to avoid. Some products contain alcohol. This may cause problems if taken in large enough doses.

Other details

The label also tells you:

  • Expiration date. This may be in a different location on the product, like 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 happens

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