How to read medicine labels correctly

Starting on a new medicine regime can be a daunting prospect. Fortunately, in Australia there are strict requirements for the labelling of prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Here’s how to read yours properly to make sure you get all the information.

Before taking any new medicine, it’s a good idea to read its label thoroughly. Not only will this inform you of any safety concerns or side-effects, but medicine labels often also contain directions for the most effective use of the drug.

In Australia, medicine labelling standards fall under the jurisdiction of the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), which in turn is part of the federal department of health. Here’s the important stuff to look for on your box or bottle, according to the TGA.

Active ingredients
The top line of an Australian medicine label will show the number of tablets (or amount of liquid), the brand name of the drug and its strength. Directly below this line is probably the most important information on the label – the active ingredient.

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The active ingredient is what allows the medicine to have an effect in the body. Examples of active ingredients include chemical compounds such as paracetamol, ibuprofen and insulin.

Although the active ingredient is what makes the medicine effective, it is also what can cause negative side-effects, so it’s important to know what you’re taking.

Underneath the active ingredients will be the directions for use. This information is critical to ensuring you use the medicine safely and correctly.

Prescription drugs in Australia will have a patient-specific label with instructions tailored by the patient’s GP to their specific circumstances. This will often be instructions such as ‘take with food’, but also ‘do not operate heavy machinery’ while taking the medication.

Medicines purchased without a prescription must display directions on how much to take and how often. Due to space limitations, the information on the label is often explained in more detail in a leaflet inside the box.

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This is another vitally important line on your medicine label. The warnings provide safety details about the drug.

For non-prescription medications, you will usually find details such as who shouldn’t be taking it (such as pregnant women or those with heart conditions), when you should stop using the drug and any side-effects the medicine might have.

For prescription drugs, your GP or pharmacist may include an additional label containing warnings specific to the individual patient.

Storage instructions
Many medicines will degrade quickly – and can become dangerous to use – if stored incorrectly. The label will give storage instructions such as ‘store below 30 degrees’, ‘avoid exposure to sunlight’ or ‘keep refrigerated’.

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Expiry date
Like anything else you put into your body, medicines should not be used beyond their expiry date. On drug labels, the expiry will usually be shown in month/year format, so 02/22 would be expiring in February 2022.

Expired medicines should be returned to a pharmacy to ensure safe disposal.

Do you always read the labels thoroughly before taking a new medicine? What’s the strangest side-effect you’ve seen on a label? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Written by Brad Lockyer