Medicine labels – what do the special instructions mean?

Many medicine labels have special instructions and warning statements on them. These list the types of things you should or shouldn’t do while taking the medicine.

Understanding medicine labels is part of using medicines safely. If you are unsure about anything, ask your pharmacist.

The following is a guide to some special instructions and warning statements that appear on medicine labels and what they mean. If your medicine has any of the following instructions, make sure you take your medicine in that way.

How to take your medicine

Be aware of side effects

How to store your medicine

Take each dose with a large glass of water.

  • All tablets and capsules should be taken with water.
  • Some medicines can cause stomach problems, indigestion and problems with your throat and oesophagus (the pipe between your throat and stomach) if they are not swallowed properly.
  • Taking them with a large glass of water helps to wash them down.  

Take each dose on an empty stomach – one hour before or two hours after food.

  • Taking some medicines at the same time as eating may prevent your body absorbing the medicine, and it may not work as well as it should.
  • This is because food, and even some drinks, can affect the way these medicines work. 
  • Read more about medicines and food.

Do not drink alcohol while being treated with this medicine.

  • Taking some medicines with alcohol can cause problems.
  • In most cases, it increases the risk of side effects such as sleepiness or changes the effect the medicine has. 
  • Read more about alcohol and medicines.

Do not stop taking this medicine without consulting your doctor.

  • It's dangerous to stop some medicines suddenly, especially if you have been taking them for a few weeks or months.
  • For these medicines, it's best to talk to your doctor and make a plan to reduce your dose slowly. 
  • If you think your medicine has caused a side effect, talk to your doctor. They may be able to lower your dose or change the medicine. 
  • Don't suddenly stop taking your medicine unless your doctor tells you to.

Grapefruit or grapefruit juice may interact with this medicine.

  • Eating grapefruit or drinking grapefruit juice can affect some medicines. In most cases, it increases the level of the medicine in your blood. This can increase the risk of side effects or change the effect the medicine has. 
  • Read more about grapefruit and medicines.

Do not take indigestion remedies, iron or calcium within two hours of taking this medicine.

  • Taking some medicines at the same time as indigestion remedies (antacids), iron or calcium may prevent your body absorbing the medicine, and it may not work as well as it should.
  • The warning about calcium includes vitamins and medicines that contain calcium and calcium-containing food such as milk and cheese.

This medicine may make you sleepy and make it dangerous to drive or operate machinery. Limit alcohol intake.

  • Taking some medicines with alcohol can cause problems. In most cases, it can increase the risk of side effects such as sleepiness or change the effect the medicine has.
  • You should NOT stop taking the medicine if you need to drive or operate machinery. Instead you should take special care until you know how the medicine affects you, or arrange not to drive or operate machinery while you are taking the medicine.
  • The term ‘limit’ means that you should only have a moderate amount of alcohol. This is to avoid you stopping your medicines because you choose to drink alcohol, even though it's best not to drink alcohol with these medicines.
  • There are some medicines that have bad side effects and make you feel very unwell if they are taken with alcohol. Your pharmacist will talk to you about this. 
  • Read more about alcohol and medicines.

Protect yourself from too much natural or artificial sunlight while being treated with this medicine.

  • Some medicines may make your skin more sensitive if you are in the sun and increase your risk of sunburn. This is due to a chemical reaction in your skin from the medicine. 
  • Read more about medicines and sun exposure.

Keep in the fridge – do not freeze.

  • Every medicine should be stored as recommended because storage information is based on stability tests done at certain temperatures for certain periods of time. 
  • For medicines that need to be kept in the fridge, store them between 2º and 8ºC. 
  • These medicines should not be frozen because freezing may affect the medicine.

Do not use after xx/xx/xx.
Do not use xx days after opening (date opened: xx/xx/xx).

  • Some medicines are given a short expiry date because they are less stable or there is risk if they are used for a longer time.
  • It's best not to use a medicine that has expired. The shelf life or expiry date of a medicine is the length of time that tests have shown it stays effective and safe if properly stored. 
  • Read more about medicines and expiry dates
Credits: Sandra Ponen, Pharmacist. Reviewed By: Angela Lambie, Pharmacist, Auckland Last reviewed: 10 Nov 2020