How to Read a Label: Over-the-Counter Medications

How to Read a Label: Over-the-Counter Medications

January 11, 2023

By Alexandra Zissu, Editorial Director

Do you or your kids have an ache or a pain? A sniffle? There’s plenty out there to help. There are more than 100,000 over-the-counter (OTC) drug products available in the U.S. to relieve common ailments. And each one comes with a mandated “Drug Facts” label listing what you need to know about the medicine inside. These labels, which often unfold into double-sided, multi-panel documents, can seem overwhelming. They’ve actually been designed to eliminate confusion. Here’s how to decode them:

Active Ingredients lists the drugs in the product responsible for working its magic.

Uses lists the symptoms or illnesses the product will prevent or treat. Only use ones that treat symptoms you or your kids have.

Warnings is one of the most important sections. It explains under what conditions the product should not be used, when its use should be stopped, what side effects are possible, what substances or activities to avoid when taking the medicine, and when you should seek professional advice from a doctor or pharmacist should be before using it. This panel should always be taken seriously—the drug in question may be regarded as safe, but it’s a drug nonetheless and misuse can result in serious harm. The common OTC pain reliever acetaminophen, for example, can cause potentially fatal liver damage if its warnings go unheeded.

Directions. No mysteries here! This section explains how and when to administer the drug to teens and adults, and to young children if permitted. Never exceed this dosage and pay special attention to children’s instructions—they often differ significantly from adult ones.

Other Information is all about proper storage and things like how much sodium is in the product.

Inactive Ingredients. Though frequently overlooked, this is one of the most crucial panels on the Drug Facts label. It lists the additives the medicine contains, many of which consist of undesirable ingredients families may want to avoid, including:

• Gelatin, an animal product vegetarians can’t consume
• Allergens like wheat and milk derivatives
• Artificial sweeteners like aspartame and saccharin
• Preservatives like sodium benzoate and/or benzoic acid, which have been linked to hyperactivity and even parabens
Artificial colors
• Genetically modified ingredients like corn syrup, cottonseed oil, or soy
• Chemicals like sodium lauryl sulfate 

Always carefully check the Drug Facts label of any OTC product you’re considering taking or giving to your children. If you see questionable warnings, undesirable ingredients, or any other potential concerns, choose another product.