Experts are concerned that too many patients might be getting most of their information about how to take a drug by reading the label on the bottle. This can be dangerous. Labels are not necessarily created by experts. They carry colorful warnings and phrases that can be interpreted in different ways. They are often ambiguous, and ambiguity can be dangerous when a doctor has prescribed a specific dose, taken at specific times, with or without food.
The messages on labels are not precise or even accurate sometimes. For instance, a red sticker with a faucet gushing water with the message in capital letters: “Medication should be taken with plenty of water.” “Plenty” is something that needs to be defined. But that’s only one example of many odd diagrams and phrases open to interpretation. The companies that make little warning strips applied to labels are experts perhaps in graphic design, but not in pharmaceuticals and health.
What’s more: the FDA doesn’t regulate these warning strips. Why? Because it’s presumed that people look at the fine print insert that goes in every bottle, outlining dosage and any potential adverse effects.
But amid warnings about drugs and because those inserts are tiny and lengthy, patients may be figuring out how to take a medication just by reading the labels instead. Many studies have backed this up. When average Americans are asked to explain what many different labels actually meant, there are often an extraordinary number of errors. The ambiguous nature of the little diagrams and the phrases had people believing something that wasn’t true. For example, people mistakenly thought a pill should be crushed and chewed before swallowing — when really it was to be swallowed whole. Other errors included mistaking what avoiding long hours in the sun meant, and the phrase “for external use only.” This one stumped a huge number of people.
All this illustrates why trusting label warnings can backfire. Even the colors used in the little stickers can influence what somebody thinks — picture how different a stark red and a calming blue are. Prescription drugs are no joke, and they must be used by a patient who understands exactly what they do and how to use them. Always ask your doctor about the drug, and read the little instructional insert that comes along with the medication. Relying on a label warning that’s unregulated by the FDA and very vague can have consequences that can be dangerous.