Understanding Your Prescription

Reading prescriptions and medication information can sometimes feel like trying to understand a foreign language. But with a few tips, you can start to read around the “medical speak” and pull out the information that’s important for you to know. However, if you’re still left with questions about the drugs you’ve been prescribed, you should not hesitate to talk to your doctor or pharmacist.

Types of medications

Three main types of medications exist: brand-name medications, generic medications and biosimilar medications. Brand-name medications have been developed and marketed by a pharmaceutical company, a process that can take many years. Brand-name medications are protected by patents, meaning the medication can be produced and sold only by the company that holds the patent for as long as 20 years. As the patents for brand-name drugs near their expiration dates, however, other drug manufacturers can apply to the FDA for permission to make and sell generic versions of the drugs.

Generic medications are chemically equivalent copies of brand-name medications. Their pharmacological effects (dosage, intended use, side effects, etc.) are exactly the same as their brand-name counterparts, but they’re often cheaper because the development costs are so much lower. In addition, multiple companies can produce generic versions of the same drug, which drives down the price even further. While generic medications may look different in size, shape and color and have different inactive ingredients, the FDA requires them to have the same quality and performance as brand-name drugs.

Like generics, biosimilar medications (sometimes called “follow-on biologics”) are produced after the patent on the original drug expires and are also usually more cost-effective (up to 30 percent less expensive). However, unlike generic drugs that copy drugs made from chemicals, biosimilars copy drugs made from living cells, so they may differ slightly from their brand-name counterparts in purity and strength. This is because the processes used to create them vary; also, exact copies are impossible because no two cell lines are identical. These small differences – in the cell line and in manufacturing – can cause different responses in patients. This means two similar biologic drugs can potentially cause different side effects. However, these drugs are still considered to have a very similar clinical effect to their brand-name originals, and they are still required to go through an FDA approval process.

Talk to your doctor to learn more about each of these types of medications and all of your treatment options, as well as any side effects you might encounter.

Writing Drug Names

Generic medications are often lowercase when written, while brand-name medications are usually capitalized. When used together, it is common to see the generic name first, followed by the brand name(s) inside parentheses.


Reading package inserts

A package insert is available for every prescription medication approved by the FDA. It contains information from the drug manufacturer about the drug and is usually long and difficult to understand. However, every package insert follows a standard format and includes the same categories (see Package Insert Contents at bottom), so after learning what to look for, you can begin to find and comprehend the key information.

The package insert will begin with a section called “Highlights of Prescribing Information,” which summarizes the most important information you need to know to use the drug safely and effectively. If you only have a few minutes to read over the package insert, you should focus on this section. In it, you’ll learn the drug’s brand name, generic name and initial year of FDA approval. If any potentially serious or life-threatening warnings or side effects are associated with the drug, you’ll then see them listed in the “Boxed Warning.” Following the Boxed Warning, you’ll usually find:

  • The uses (indications) for which the drug has been approved
  • The recommended dosages of the drug
  • Advice about whether to take the drug with food or other medications
  • The form (tablet, liquid, ointment, powder, etc.) and dosage strength of the drug
  • Contraindications (symptoms or conditions, such as allergies or diabetes, that make taking the drug inadvisable)
  • The most common and/or potentially serious side effects of the drug
  • Other medications that may interact poorly if taken at the same time as the drug
  • The drug’s safety and effectiveness in various population groups (nursing or pregnant mothers, geriatric patients and pediatric patients)

At the conclusion of the Highlights of Prescribing Information section, you’ll find a table of contents to help you navigate through the remaining content. Other information you can find in the package insert includes:

  • Class of medication in which the drug falls
  • Color of the drug
  • Chemical name of the drug
  • A list of the inactive ingredients
  • How the drug is processed and eliminated from your body
  • Whether you should keep the drug refrigerated
  • Results of clinical trials in which the drug was used
  • Actions you should take in the event of a drug overdose
  • A phone number and website you can use to report any suspected adverse reactions
  • Information your doctor is supposed to discuss with you

It’s a good idea to review the package insert in its entirety before taking any medication and again if your health changes.

Package Insert Contents

  1. Highlights of Prescribing Information
  2. Indications and Usage
  3. Dosage and Administration
  4. Dosage Forms and Strengths
  5. Contraindications
  6. Warnings and Precautions
  7. Adverse Reactions
  8. Drug Interactions
  9. Use in Specific Populations
  10. Overdosage
  11. Description
  12. Clinical Pharmacology
  13. Nonclinical Toxicology
  14. Clinical Studies
  15. References
  16. How Supplied/Storage and Handling
  17. Patient Counseling Information