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How to read a medicine label (and why you always should)

Wednesday 23 August 2017

A medicine bottle sits on a pharmacy bench with a blank label, behind it can be shelves of medicines.
Whether you’re using prescription medicines, over the counter products, sunscreens or supplements, reading the labels will make sure you’re using them properly and getting all of the benefits.

How often do you take the time to read the labels and instructions on medicines? Not just prescription medicines, but all types of medicines, like painkillers, cold tablets, herbal remedies or sunscreen. Do you let the packet languish at the bottom of your bag, or are you a stickler for reading the fine print?

Be MedicineWise is all about teaching Aussies how to be smarter with medicines. Stats like ‘1 in 10 Australians over the age of 14 have misused medicines’ show that it’s an important lesson to learn.

Whether you’re using prescription medicines, over the counter products, sunscreens or supplements, reading the labels will make sure you’re using them properly and getting all of the benefits. It can also help prevent harmful side effects. Below, we’ve broken down the parts of a medicine packet you should pay attention to.

Purpose

All over-the-counter medicines will clearly state what they’re meant to do on the packet. For example, a sunscreen will say that it should be used for sun protection, while ibuprofen tablets will tell you what kind of pain or symptoms they can relieve. You should only ever use these products for the purpose shown.

Prescription medicines won’t have their purpose printed on the box, because your doctor will have decided their purpose for your specific situation. That doesn’t mean you can use them for other purposes – exactly the opposite is true! You should only use prescription medicines for the purpose discussed with your doctor, and should never share them with other people.

Directions

All medicines will have directions for use either on the packaging or included in a printed instruction leaflet. You should read these even if you’ve used the medicine before, because something might have changed and it’s good to remind yourself.

These directions will tell you how often you should use the medicine, for example ‘take once daily’ or ‘apply every two hours’, and they might even tell you the time of day you should take them. This might make a difference to how effective the medicine is, so it’s important to follow these instructions closely. Some dosages can be variable, such as ‘take two tablets every four to six hours for pain’ or ‘according to blood test results’. If you are at all unsure about what measurement you should take or how often, talk to your doctor or pharmacist.

The directions will also tell you how much to take or use, and how long you can continue to you the medicine. You can use some medicines long-term, while others can only be used for a couple of days at a time. Using some medicines long term can result in damage to your body or lessen their effectiveness.

Some medicines will require you to use the entire packet, like a course of antibiotics prescribed by your doctor. Others will need to be used only as long as your symptoms last, like a pain killer. Every medicine is different, so read the directions to find out.

If you don’t understand the instructions, or you’re not exactly sure how to take or use medicines, ask your pharmacist or doctor to explain them to you.

Warnings

Sometimes medicines can cause side effects, which means they affect you in a way that isn’t their desired purpose. This might be because your body reacts to the medicine, or because you eat, drink or do something else that reacts with the medicine.

The ‘warnings’ section of your medicine packet or instruction leaflet will instruct you what to do if you experience side effects from taking or using the product. This might be anything from experiencing a rash to feeling nauseous, and could be mild or severe.

The warnings will also list the types of things you shouldn’t do while taking or using the product. For example, according to MedicineWise, over 150 medicines can interact with alcohol. These medicines will warn you not to drink alcohol while taking them, and it’s worth paying attention: combining these medicines with alcohol can have moderate to serious, and sometimes even fatal, consequences.

It’s very important to read any warnings before taking or using a medicine, even if the product is as simple as sunscreen. This might help you identify an adverse reaction quickly, and will allow you to stay safe while using the medicine.

A young female pharmacist explains a medicine box to a male customer.

Expiry date

It’s time to ‘fess up – do you have old medicines in your cupboard that expired years ago?

While it’s easy to hang on to medicines that are past their expiration date, keeping them past expiry is a bad idea. Not only could they be ineffective in treating your problem, they could cause unwanted and possibly dangerous side effects. Having a lot of medicines stored can also lead to confusion, and also increases the risk of children or pets accidentally getting into them.

Look for the expiration date printed on the packet (check underneath sticker labels), on the ends of tubes or underneath the lid. If you can’t find the expiration date, check with your pharmacist, who might know where to look.

Instead of throwing them in the bin, which can lead to environmental damage, you can safely dispose of old medicines by taking them to your community pharmacy, as part of the Return Unwanted Medicines project.

AUST R and L numbers

An AUST R or AUST L number on a medicine packet shows that the product is included in the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG). You can find these numbers printed on the outside packaging.

An AUST R number will be on the packet of prescription only medicines and some over-the-counter products. This shows that the medicine has been assessed for safety, quality and effectiveness.

An AUST L number will be on the packet of products that are used for minor health problems or prevention, like sunscreen and vitamins. This shows that the ingredients used in the medicine are all pre-approved, low-risk ingredients.

Storage conditions

Some medicines will instruct you to keep them in the fridge, while others will need to be stored in a dry place, or with the lid tightly closed. Storing medicines properly helps them to last and stay safe for you to use. Always check the storage instructions for new products and ask your pharmacist if you have any questions about the right way to store them.

Batch number and supplier’s name

The batch number and supplier’s name will be used to identify the medicine if there’s ever a problem with it. Sometimes, medicines have to be recalled if there’s a reason that they might not be safe, like a packaging fault. You’ll be able to tell if your medicine has been recalled by checking the batch number and supplier’s name.

You can keep an eye out for medicine recalls on the Therapeutic Goods Administration website and shared on the Queensland Health Facebook page.

Last updated: 9 April 2019