How to understand medicine labels

All medicines have directions on them so you know how to take them. Understanding these is part of using medicines correctly and safely.

It's important that you know how to use your medicine. If you are unsure of any of these things, ask your pharmacist about them:
  • How much do I take?
  • What time of the day should I take it?
  • How many times a day should I take it?
  • Should I take it with or without food?
  • Is there a limit on how often I should take it?
  • How long should I take it for?
  • Can I stop using the medicine or take less if I feel better?
  • When should I stop taking this medicine?

On this page, you will find information on:

Medicine label

Medicines dispensed by your pharmacist have the directions on the label of the bottle or box. Medicines bought over the counter from the pharmacy or the supermarket (such as paracetamol and ibuprofen) have directions on the packaging or on a leaflet inside the box. The directions usually tell you how much to take, how often to take it and how long to take it for.

Read the directions even if you’ve used the medicine before. Something might have changed and, even if it hasn't, it’s good to remind yourself what the directions are.

Medicine name

The label on your medicine includes the medicine name. Every medicine has 2 names:

  • a brand name, which is given by the pharmaceutical company that markets the medicine
  • a generic name, which is the active ingredient that makes the medicine work.

If the name of your medicine is not what you were expecting, or if you have any doubts about it, check with your pharmacist or doctor.

Dose – how much medicine to take

The dose of the medicine refers to the amount that is taken. Dose is normally an amount such as ‘ take TWO tablets’ or ‘take 5mls’.

It is very important that you take the correct dose of medicine. If you take too much, this may cause side effects that can be harmful. If you take too little, the medicine may not work.

The right dose for each person depends on many things, such as your age and weight, and what you are taking the medicine for. This means two people taking the same medicine may have different doses.

Splitting tablets

If your dose is half a tablet, you can split the tablet into 2 by either breaking the tablet along a scored line or by using a tablet cutter. You can buy a tablet cutter from your pharmacy.

Some tablets are difficult to cut because they don't have a scored line or because of their shape. If you have trouble splitting your tablets, talk to your pharmacist. They can do this for you.

It’s important to halve tablets correctly because uneven splitting or crumbling changes the dose.

Swallowing difficulties

Many people find it difficult to swallow some medicines. This especially affects children and older adults or if you have a medical condition that affects your throat.

If you have problems swallowing your medicines, talk to your pharmacist or doctor – there are ways they can help you. Read more about difficulty swallowing medicines.

How often to take the medicine

How often you should use the medicine is also on the label or leaflet, eg, ‘take once daily’ or ‘apply every two hours’. Sometimes there is information about the best time of day to take it. This might make a difference to how effective the medicine is, so it’s important to follow these instructions closely.  

You usually need to take medicine at about the same time each day so that it becomes part of your daily routine, which will help you remember to take it.

Direction What could it mean
Once a day 
  • This can be in the morning OR in the evening.
  • Ask your pharmacist when is the best time for you to take your medicine. 
    • Diuretics, or ‘water pills’ are best taken early in the day.
    • If you need a second dose, take it by mid-afternoon to avoid extra trips to the bathroom at night. Diuretics cause you to pee more and can disrupt your sleep if taken near bedtime.
    • Some medicines that keep you awake are best taken in the morning.
    • Medicines that cause drowsiness or sleepiness are best taken at night.
  • With some medicines, it’s not important whether you take it morning, noon or night, as long as you take it at about the same time each day.  

Two times a day

OR

twice daily

  • These medicines should usually be taken in the morning and in the evening.
  • Ideally, these times are 10–12 hours apart, eg, between 7am and 8 am, and again between 7pm and 8 pm.
Three times a day  
  • These medicines should be taken in the morning, the early afternoon and at bedtime. 
  • Ideally, these times should be 8 hours apart, or at least 4–6 hours apart.
Four times a day
  • These are usually taken first thing in the morning (before breakfast), at about midday (before lunch), late in the afternoon (before tea/dinner) and at bedtime. 
  • Ideally, these times should be at least 3–4 hours apart.

Some medicines need to be taken with or without food to work their best. Some anti-inflammatory medicines need to be taken with food to reduce the chances of causing stomach (yummy) problems. Read more about taking medicines before or after food.

What does ‘take as needed’ mean?

Some medicines are prescribed ‘as needed’, which means you should take these as required for your condition. An example is medicine to relieve pain, which may be prescribed for use only when you feel pain, but are not taken regularly.

When taking medicines as required, it's important to follow the dose amount and not take more than the maximum daily dose.

How long to take your medicine

The directions on your medicine label may also tell you how long to take the medicine for. You can use some medicines long term, while others can only be used for a couple of days at a time. You need to finish the course for some medicines, while others need to be used only as long as your symptoms last, like a pain relief medicine.

Every medicine is different, so read the directions to find out. If you don’t understand the instructions, or you’re not exactly sure how to take or use medicines, ask your pharmacist or doctor to explain them to you.

Credits: Sandra Ponen, Pharmacist. Reviewed By: Angela Lambie, Pharmacist, Auckland Last reviewed: 17 Nov 2020