There is no doubt that prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications can come with tons of confusing directions, warnings, disclaimers, and information on the paperwork. So, we’re digging into what some of these often-confusing terms or sections of a label mean. Because we believe, the more you know about your medications, the more you can make sure they are working for you.

Of course, we need to give you the usual disclaimer that even these terms don’t always have a common definition, and you should be sure to consult your doctor and pharmacist a couple times a year to go over everything that you’re taking.

You’re not alone

Unfortunately, misunderstanding what a medication does and how to take it is extremely common. In one study, 464 volunteers were asked to organize seven hypothetical prescription medications—21 fake pills in all—into a box with 24 compartments representing hours of the day. While all the pills could be consolidated into just four compartments, 8 a.m., noon, 6 p.m. and bedtime, most patients largely couldn't see that because of the confusing way the labels were worded. Instead of four compartments, many of the participants organized the 21 fake pills in as many as 14 compartments. Only 15% of the participants got it right.

And there are countless other studies out there that support this same conclusion. This type of misunderstanding can lead to detrimental results like a patient stopping taking their medication all together or taking it incorrectly, potentially causing harm to themselves.

Thankfully, there is a big movement right now to make pill bottles less confusing, which is great news. It’s things as simple as changing “twice daily” to “every twelve hours” or “at 8 am and 6 pm.” Yet, until all pill bottles become less confusing, there is value in knowing what some of the most confusing words often mean. Check out our list below:

1. Store in a dark and dry place

Most medications don’t do well with light, oxygen, heat, humidity, or water. The drug can start to break down in these conditions. So when the label says to store in a dry and dark place, try to choose a place free from a lot of sunlight. Ironically, the medicine cabinet in your bathroom is one of the worst places to store your meds. The steam and humidity from a shower can damage the medication.

Also, avoid keeping medication in your car, especially during hot summer months. And even if your medication just says “dry” or just says “dark,” it’s safest to pay attention to both conditions. Always check with a pharmacist if you have questions about storing specific medications.

2. Take as needed

As you may imagine, there is no one-size-fits-all definition for this phrase—it is truly different by medication and by person. What’s important to note is that taking the medication is generally tied to something conditional—for example, when you have chest pains or before/after a certain activity.

Also, how often you “take as needed” depends on your specific situation and the drug itself. Pay attention to labels that say things like “take as needed every 4 hours.” That means that even if you feel like you need it, if 4 hours have not passed since your last dose, it’s too early to take again. It’s important to understand what exactly the medication works for and how you would know whether you need to take it. Your doctor or pharmacist can help you make sure you’re using an “as needed” med appropriately.

3. Take twice daily

Generally, this instruction means to take your medication doses approximately 12 hours apart. You can ask your doctor or pharmacist to give you specific times that fit into your lifestyle and make it easy for you to remember. It’s important to understand that a medication with this instruction needs to be taken twice in one day at two different times to work in your body, so don’t take both doses at the same time.

4. Do not operate heavy machinery

This label is likely to appear on a medication if it could make you dizzy, drowsy, or slow your reaction time. For most of us that don’t drive tractors or fly planes, this generally means don’t drive a car. If you do work in an industry where you use heavy machinery a lot, be sure to have a conversation with your doctor about what it means for you. Operating any machinery could be dangerous for yourself and others.

5. Non-drowsy

Non-drowsy means that the ingredients in this medication shouldn’t make you feel tired. However, it does not mean that the drug will make you feel more alert than normal; it simply means it won’t be the source of your tiredness. If you need to take a medication during the day, such as an allergy medication, it’s important to look for “non-drowsy” on the label.

6. Extra strength

This language on a bottle label is most commonly seen on OTC medications, and it means that there is more of an active ingredient in this version than a regular-strength version. It’s important to pay special attention to the dosing instructions for these products because they’ll be different than the regular ones.

Always consider whether you need an extra strength version of a med at all—you may be thinking to yourself “of course I want extra strength.” But it may result in you taking more medicine than you need. For a dull headache, a normal strength medication could do the trick. There is no point in taking extra active ingredients if you don’t need them. In fact, it’s usually safer to stick with a lower dose.

7. Take on an empty stomach

Medications with this label mean that for the medication to do what it’s intended to do, and be absorbed in your body correctly, it shouldn’t interact with food in your stomach. Food can block or reduce the absorption of the ingredients. The rule of thumb should be to give your medication two hours without food in your body. In other words, if you just ate, wait two hours to take your dose. Or if you just took your medication, wait two hours to eat.

8. Take with food

You can consider this language to mean “don’t take on an empty stomach.” There are many reasons for this direction, including that the medication could cause stomach pain, serious side effects, or not be absorbed very well unless you have some food in your stomach. Whether you've just eaten a meal or snack, are about to eat, or are in the middle of a meal, the most important thing is that the medicine and the food will be in your stomach at the same time.

9. Take as directed

Unfortunately, if your medication has this this, there is not a universal definition we can provide! In this situation, if you’re not exactly sure what this means, it is important to have a good conversation with your doctor about how much of the medication you’re supposed to use, for what, and how often. Don’t guess and take it how you think it should be taken or how you take any of your other medications because that could lead to unnecessary side effects and an ineffective medication for you.

10. Inactive ingredients list

Every medication is made up of active and inactive ingredients. The active ingredients are responsible for the desired effect of the drug. The inactive ingredients are everything else that make up the pill, lotion, or liquid and are often called fillers. So why are these inactive ingredients even there if they don’t help your condition? Well, it turns out they are actually pretty important in making sure the medicine is stable and is able to get into your body to do its job. According to Science-Based Medicine, “these supplementary, non-medicinal ingredients play a critical role in ensuring that drug products are of consistent and reproducible quality. Without them, we’d have products that are potentially unstable, we’d be unclear if they were actually being absorbed, and we wouldn’t know if they actually delivered any active ingredients into the body.”

Let’s keep decoding

What other terms make you question if you’re taking your medication correctly? Head over to our Facebook or Instagram and leave us a comment. We will be sure to have our experts respond with some clarity! Because chances are if you’re confused about something on a label, others likely share the same confusion. And as we’ve seen, until medication labels become clearer with their language, we can play a part to better understand what terms and phrases mean so that we can make sure every medication is taken correctly and working effectively.

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