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7 ways to make sense of OTC-medicine labels

Take note of these things next time you’re at the pharmacy
OTC-medicine labels

Flu season is upon us once again, which means you’ll probably be trying to understand over-the-counter (OTC) medication for the first time, or comparing brands on the shelf. So what’s the big idea?

Many people who self-medicate do not fully understand what the labels on the bottle mean and can make poor choices about which medicine is best for them and their loved ones. Graham Anderson of Profmed shares seven ways to develop an understanding of pharmaceutical labelling. 

1. Presentation

This refers to the physical characteristics of the medication, including colour, shape and markings, to help you determine that you’re taking the right thing.

2. Volume

Volume appears as a number of tablets, a volume in millilitres (ml) or a weight in grams (g). ‘This is the physical quantity of the product, which will help you to ensure that there’s enough to last the length of time you’re supposed to take it for,’ says Anderson. You can also compare similar products in terms of cost.

3. Dose 

The amount of medicine to be taken is usually listed for adults and children (with age categories): how much to take, how to take it, and how often and for how long it should be taken. When in doubt about the correct dosage for an ailment, chat to your pharmacist or other healthcare practitioner.

4. Active ingredient

This is the pharmaceutical name of the therapeutic substance in the product – the one that’s responsible for the action of the medicine. You’ll also see the amount of active ingredient per recommended dosage unit, either in ml or microlitres (µI), says Anderson.

Why would you need to know this? When comparing brands, in case you have a hypersensitivity (allergy) or in case there is a drug interaction with a medicine or supplement you are already taking.

5. Schedule

If the medication is a scheduled drug, this information must appear on the label, says Anderson. Schedules go from S0 to S6, increasing in regulatory control as the number gets larger.

While S0 (aspirin, vitamins and some topical creams) can be sold in supermarkets, health shops, service stations, pharmacies and other retailers, S1 upwards must be sold in a pharmacy. S1 and S2 (cold and flu remedies, antihistamines and anti-inflammatories) can be bought without a prescription, as can some S3 medications for certain indications and for a limited duration. Anderson points out that in South Africa, a prescription is needed for anything higher than S3.

6. Expiry date

This is important if you’re going to be keeping or storing the drug. All medications have expiry dates that must be taken seriously, says Anderson, because their strength may change over time. Alternatively, there may be a breakdown in some of the ingredients, with potentially dangerous byproducts.

7. Storage instructions

Most medicines must be kept in a cool, dry place below 25 degrees Celsius. If medication must go into the fridge, it will say so. Anderson stresses that it is important to pay special attention to these instructions, as ignoring them can destroy the medicine.

Helpful tips

Always remember to look out for special precautions in cases where:

1. The patient is pregnant or breast-feeding,

2. The patient’s age is important (very young or very old),

3. There’s a pre-existing condition (hypertension, heart disease and so on),

4. There are restrictions relating to alcohol use, or

5. The medication can cause drowsiness or impaired concentration.

PHOTO: iStock/vizualni


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