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What to Look for on OTC Medicine Labels

Medicine errors—taking the wrong medicine or the right medicine too often, or in the wrong amount—can be dangerous.

According to the FDA, knowing how to read and understand over-the-counter (OTC) medicine 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. Ask your healthcare provider to advise one or more websites that can give you clear information as well.

Look for the following information:

  • Active ingredients. Chemical compounds in medicines that have an effect on the body and the amount of this active ingredient per dose.

  • Purpose. The product action or category (such as antihistamine, antacid, or cough suppressant).

  • Uses. This tells you which symptoms or diseases the product can treat or prevent.

  • Warnings. This is when not to use the product. It includes conditions that may need advice from a healthcare provider before taking the product. This would include possible side effects, interactions with other medicines that can occur, allergy warnings, pregnancy, when to stop taking the product and when to contact a healthcare 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. This depends on the age of the person or certain pre-existing conditions. Examples are liver or kidney problems, asthma, or high blood pressure.

  • Other information. How to store the product correctly and information about certain ingredients. This includes the amount of calcium, potassium, or sodium the product contains. Medicines should be stored in cool, dry places and in their original bottles for safety.

  • Inactive ingredients. Substances like colors, flavors, or fillers that don't contribute to the action of the medicine. Some products may contain sugars. Examples are glucose, fructose, or corn syrup that some people need to stay away from. 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. Manufacturer information to help identify the product so the history of the product can be traced.

  • 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. Call your local poison control number or local emergency room for instructions if the label doesn't say what to do. You could also contact the Poison Control Centers at 800-222-1222. Call 911 for a medical emergency.

Ask your healthcare provider, nurse, pharmacist, or other healthcare professional for advice if you read a medicine label and still have questions.