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Over-the-counter pain medications: Reading the labels

Over-the-counter pain medications aren't all the same. Understanding the common terms used on pain medication labels will help you choose the one that's best for you.

Over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications are packaged in bottles and boxes that have labels describing how the medications work. The information on the labels of pain medications, also called pain relievers, can help you decide which one is best for you ? if you understand the lingo. Here are the definitions of some common terms you'll find in the pain medication aisles at your local drugstore.

Terms in the Drug Facts label

The Food and Drug Administration requires that all OTC products include certain information in a standardized Drug Facts label. This simple, uniform label is intended to help you compare and choose pain medications wisely. These terms appear in the Drug Facts label in this order:

Active ingredient. This is the medication that works to relieve your symptoms. It's always the first item on the label. Sometimes, there may be more than one active ingredient in a product, but the label will indicate this. The same active ingredient may be present in many different brands of medicine. For example, aspirin ? sometimes abbreviated ASA ? and acetaminophen are active ingredients in many common pain relievers.

Note the amount of active ingredient in each dose ? usually expressed in milligrams (mg). Typically, you can choose among several pain medications that have the same active ingredient and dose, opting for the best price or for a preferred method of delivery ? capsule instead of tablet, for example. Brand-name pain relievers, such as Tylenol, aren't any better than their generic equivalents, such as your local drugstore brand acetaminophen.

Uses. Also called indications, this section of the label lists the signs and symptoms that the medicine is approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat.

Warnings. This safety information tells you what other medicines, foods or situations ? such as driving ? to avoid while taking the medicine.
Directions. This section has information about when, how and how often to take the pain medication. This is where dosage information is presented.
Other information. Additional information about the pain medication, such as how to store it, will be listed here.

Inactive ingredients. Preservatives, binding agents and food colorings fall into this category, which includes all chemicals in a medicine that aren't meant to treat your symptoms. Pay close attention to this information if you have food allergies or other allergies

Terms that describe the form of medication

Over-the-counter pain medications are sold in many different forms.

Tablet. This is a solid pill created by packing the active ingredient together with a binding agent. Tablets are usually the cheapest form of medication, but they may be difficult for some people to swallow.

Capsule. This is the term for a hollow gelatin container that holds a powdered medication. Many people have an easier time swallowing capsules than they do swallowing ordinary tablets.

Caplet. Caplets are solid tablets in the shape of a capsule with a smooth coating. Caplets, like capsules, may go down more easily than ordinary tablets.

Gelcap. This is a caplet with a gelatin coating to aid in ease of swallowing.

Geltab. This is a tablet with a gelatin coating to aid in ease of swallowing.

Liquigel. This capsule contains medicine that has been dissolved into liquid form to speed absorption by your body.

Suspension. A liquid suspension contains drug particles that can't be dissolved. It must be shaken thoroughly before use to redisperse the drug particles.

Other terms on the package or bottle

The following terms describe special features present in some pain medications. Adding these terms to your vocabulary can help you select the right pain medication for relief.

Buffered. A buffered pain reliever contains an antacid to reduce acidity in the stomach. There's some debate about whether buffered products actually protect your stomach.

Combination formula. Products with this term contain two or more active ingredients. Caffeine is sometimes used as an active ingredient in addition to other pain relievers. Studies show that the addition of caffeine to aspirin or acetaminophen (Excedrin, others) improves pain relief.

Enteric-coated. This special coating allows pills to pass undigested through your stomach and be dissolved in your small intestine, which helps reduce stomach irritation. Because the coating delays absorption, it's not the best choice for quick relief, such as for a headache.

Extra-strength. Dose for dose, these preparations contain more active ingredient than regular-strength products contain. For example, an extra-strength Tylenol has 500 milligrams of acetaminophen, compared with 325 milligrams in the regular-strength version. Extra-strength formulas are more convenient when you need more than one regular-strength dose to relieve your symptoms. Use added caution when you're taking extra-strength preparations. Be sure to keep track of the number of doses you take so that you don't exceed the recommended maximum dose.

Migraine formula. Products with this label are approved for treating migraine headaches ? severe headaches that are often accompanied by other signs and symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting and light sensitivity.

PM or night formula. These medications are meant to be used in the evening because they may make you drowsy. Oral medications with this description include a sedating drug, such as an antihistamine.
Scored. These tablets have a groove in them, which allows you to more easily break them in half. Scored tablets may be useful if you need to take less than the amount in one dose, which may help limit side effects.

Timed-release. Also called extended-release or sustained-release, these products dissolve slowly. They prolong the effect of the medication by maintaining a sustained level of the active ingredient in your blood. Use them if you need lasting, not just immediate, relief. But don't crush or chew these products.

Read all about it
The information on today's over-the-counter medications is easier to understand than ever. Technical terms like "contraindications" and "precautions" have been eliminated. So has haphazardly placed safety information and tiny type.

So there's no excuse for not reading the print before you make a purchase. Also, be sure to read the label ? including the expiration date ? when you dig something out of your medicine cabinet.
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