If you’re prescribed a new drug, your doctor and pharmacist should give you the basic facts – why you’re taking it, its major side effects and what other medications or foods to avoid while on it.

But that’s just the beginning of the story, and you should consider doing more research, particularly if you’re planning to take the medication for an extended period. The best place to start is the drug’s official label, approved by the Food and Drug Administration when it went on the market and updated regularly with new findings reviewed by the agency.

This “label,” sometimes called a “package insert,” is not the little sticker that comes attached to a pill bottle. Instead, it’s a long document that can stretch on for dozens of pages. You may get a copy with your prescription, printed in mini-script that likely requires a magnifying glass, or you can find one online.

These labels are written primarily for doctors, so they are not easy to understand. They also don’t always contain the absolute latest in research, since the FDA and drug makers can take months or even years to get new data into labels. But they are also the most comprehensive source of information on a drug, chock full of important facts about the stuff you’re putting in your body. Among them: the proper dosage, the FDA-approved uses of the drug, its scientific name, the full list of possible side effects, and the full evidence backing the drug’s effectiveness.

To find a label, you can start by going to the FDA’s web site, Click on “drugs,” on the left, and then go to “Healthcare professional resources.” Then, under “Drug Information,” click on Drugs@FDA. You will get an alphabet. Click on the letter for the drug you’re taking (“L” for Lipitor, for instance) and then find it in the list that comes up. Click on “Label information,” then pull up the most recent approved label.

A simpler way to find a drug label is often to go to the drug maker’s official site for the medication. Click the links that say “for medical professionals only,” even if you aren’t, and look for the professional labeling, sometimes called the full description. There’s no prohibition on a non-professional reviewing drug labels.

Because the FDA started requiring a new format for drug labels in 2006, recently-approved drugs and newly-updated labels will look different than older ones. The newer format is easier to understand, with key facts highlighted at the beginning of the label. But the information is the same, regardless of the format.

Some labels also have patient counseling information, which is what your doctor is supposed to tell you. It tends to be at the bottom of the label. This may be worth examining as well, but if you can, you should also try to read the actual label text.

A good place to start is with the name of the drug. You’ll notice that the brand name you’re familiar with is at the top of the label, along with the drug’s true scientific name next to it in parentheses. In the case of Lipitor, this is “atorvastatin calcium.” It’s helpful to know the name of your drug for a number of reasons. For one thing, doctors often use it in conversation, particularly with another medical professional. For another, a generic version might not go by the brand name. And if you decide to do further research on your drug for any reason, you will find that medical journal articles always use the scientific name, not the brand.

Next, you’ll want to look at “indications and usage.” A drug’s “indications” are its approved uses – meaning, the things the FDA has agreed it’s useful to treat, based on evidence from studies. This is important because you want to know whether the reason you’re taking the drug is on this approved list.

Often, doctors prescribe drugs for so-called “off-label” uses that the FDA hasn’t approved. This is legal and often appropriate, but you may want to ask your doctor about why she feels this unapproved use is proper for you, and check that your insurer covers the drug under such circumstances.

In the summary at the top of the Lipitor label, for instance, you’ll see a long list of uses, topped by “Reduce the risk of MI, stroke, revascularization procedures, and angina in patients without CHD, but with multiple risk factors.” This is typical medical-speak, and you may want to turn to an online medical dictionary for help. There’s one at, and many others are available at sites such as WebMD. To start you out, MI stands for myocardial infarction, or heart attack.

You’ll find a longer version of the indications (and the rest of the label) after the summary at the top. This is sometimes easier to understand, because it has fewer acronyms and spells things out in a bit more depth.

Another good thing to check in the label is the “dosage and administration.” This is pretty straightforward. It explains how much of the medication a patient is supposed to take. There’s plenty of research showing that dosage errors occur fairly regularly. You should check that the dose you’re taking is actually in the approved range, and that someone hasn’t added an extra zero or made some other basic mistake. It’s also good to know if you’re taking a relatively large or a small dose of a drug, so that you can have an educated conversation with your doctor about whether you might need more or less.

“Contraindications” is another important area of your drug’s label, and it’s just what it sounds like – the exact opposite of the FDA-approved uses. If any of these contraindicated situations matches your circumstances, you should almost certainly not be taking the drug. Call your doctor right away to ask if he might have made a mistake or been unaware of something about your status. For instance, Lipitor is contraindicated for nursing mothers and women who are pregnant, among other groups.

Next is perhaps the most important part of the label for the consumer to check – the warnings and precautions. These are the safety concerns that the FDA wants to flag. “Warnings” are more serious than “precautions,” but all are worth a read. There’s no need to become a hypochondriac, attributing every little twinge to your medication, but drug side effects can be serious and even fatal. You should be aware of safety issues that have been linked to your drug, and watch for them. Among the most serious potential drug side effects are liver damage and, in the case of Lipitor and similar cholesterol-reducing drugs, muscle problems.

Finally, you will see “drug interactions.” These are also important to check, because they tell you what other medications, herbal remedies, or foods may have side effects when combined with your drug. Some of these may be unexpected: grapefruit, for one, interacts with certain medications.

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