A Warning About Prescription Drug Labels

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Experts are concerned that too many patients might be getting most of their information about how to take a drug from reading the label on the bottle. Here’s why this poses a very bad problem — labels are not necessarily created by experts. They carry colorful warnings and phrases that can be interpreted in many different ways. They are often ambiguous — and ambiguity can be dangerous when a doctor has prescribed a specific dose, to be taken at specific times, with or without food.

 According to a New York Times article published in late October, these messages could be in the form of a red sticker showing a faucet gushing water with the message in capital letters: “Medication should be taken with plenty of water.” What, exactly, is “plenty”? This is just one example of the many odd-looking diagrams and phrases that are open to interpretation by people.

 What everybody needs to know is that companies make their livelihood creating these little warning strips that are applied to labels. (Not to make them seem sketchy, of course, because their intentions are admirable.) The FDA does not regulate these warning strips, because it’s presumed that people look at the small-type insert that goes in every bottle, which outlines dosage procedures and any possible side effects.

 Experts are worried that amid all these warnings over drugs — and the lengthy description on the inserts — people are simplifying the process and just reading the labels on the bottle to tell them how to take their medication. A startling new study puts this into perspective. A whole cross-section of adults across the country was asked to explain what many different labels actually meant. The result? There were many, many errors in interpretation.

 The ambiguous nature of the little diagrams and the phrases had the participants believe something that wasn’t true. For example, people mistakenly thought a pill should be crushed and chewed before swallowing when it had to be swallowed whole (not crushed). Other mistaken interpretations included warnings about avoiding long hours in the sun while taking a drug, or the wording “for external use only” — a very vague phrase that stumped a large number of participants.

 In any event, you can see why trusting label warnings can backfire. Even the colors used in the little stickers can influence what somebody thinks — and don’t forget that a graphic designer, not a doctor, creates these labels. Prescription drugs are no joke, and they must be used by a patient who understands exactly what it is that they do and how to properly use them.

 You should always ask your doctor about the drugs you are taking and read the little instructional insert that comes along with the medication. Relying on a label warning, which is unregulated by the FDA and very vague, can have dangerous consequences.




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