Mom reading label with baby There’s a reason for the label on every medication bottle, box or container you bring home from the pharmacy or grocery store. The information it contains is important: to help your child get well and keep them safe.

“The first thing is to always check that you have received your child’s correct medication,” says Marguerite A. Pacholski, BSN, RN, a specialist in poison information in the Poison Control Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). “The label should display your child’s name prominently.”

Next, Pacholski says, is to verify that the package contains the medication your child’s doctor prescribed.

“We all have an overwhelming number of products in our homes that could be harmful if ingested. The adage ‘the dose makes the poison’ is so true,” reminds Pacholski. “Anything can be poisonous if used by the wrong person or taken in the wrong amount.”

Recognizing that label information might be a little tricky to understand, CHOP offers these tips to help make sense of medication labels so you can avoid common – and potentially dangerous – mistakes.

Why is it important for caregivers to know how to read a medicine label?

“It’s not only important to be knowledgeable about the label in order to give proper doses or concentrations, but also to find information that may be needed in case of an overdose or accidental ingestion,” says Pacholski. “Concentrations can vary among medications with the same product name. Some may have adult/children/infant formulations that are not interchangeable when it comes to their dosing.”

In terms of medications, parents or caregivers should know how to determine the following:

  • Size and quantity: Size of the bottle/container and quantity of medication (e.g., number of pills/capsules, ounces of liquid medication, etc.)
  • Date the medication was administered, and when best used by.
  • Active ingredients: Check to make sure you do not ingest other medications with the same active ingredients (risking a possible over exposure/overdose) and learn how the product is supposed to help your child (e.g., limiting fevers, lowering inflammation, etc.)
  • Uses: This section explains the symptoms or diseases the medication can treat. Always check this section when purchasing new over-the-counter medication to make sure it is intended to do what you want it to do.
  • Warnings: This is one of the most critical parts of the drug label, and it is usually in large print. Here you’ll find safety information including who should not take the drug, when to stop using it, when to call the doctor, and potential side effects.
  • Directions: Check this section carefully because it tells you how much of the medication to take and how often – commonly called the “dosage”.
  1. Measurement is crucial – a kitchen teaspoon or tablespoon is not interchangeable with 5 ml or 15 ml accurately marked on the medication cup or dropper included in the packaging. You could be giving too much or too little to your child.
  2. The gold standard for accurately dosing your child’s medication is to use an oral syringe with a slow-flow adapter.
  3. Never administer more than the label indicates without first discussing it with your child’s doctor.
  4. If you are unsure about dosing, call the prescribing doctor or your pharmacist.

Additional helpful tips

  • If your child is uncooperative about taking medication – particularly liquid medication -- check with your pharmacist about adding a flavor. Bubble-gum or cherry flavoring can make medicine easier to swallow for kids and teens.
  • While there may be a financial benefit to buying over-the-counter medicine and vitamins in bulk sizes, having less of the product available in your home – and possibly taking too much at any one time – may make the risk outweigh the benefit.
  • Keep medications in their original packaging. Trouble can arise when transferring products from their original container. It is easy to make a look-alike mistake and accidently give your child the wrong medication or wrong dosage. This can be a common mistake in households where more than 1 person takes the same medication, but a different dosage based on weight.
  • Reading the small print on medicine labels can be frustrating. If you need help, ask for it. One easy fix: Take a photograph of the medicine label with your cellphone, then make the text larger so you can read it more easily.
  • Do not keep medications on the counter or in a cabinet within the reach of children. Store all medications in a safe place.

Know who to call in an emergency

No matter how careful you are with your family’s medications and over-the-counter medications, accidents do happen. Maybe your baby found a pill on the bathroom floor, or a child ate what they thought were gummy candies. Knowing who to call in that moment is key to the best outcomes.

CHOP’s Poison Control Center provides a 24/7 hotline for possible poison exposures. Registered nurses and pharmacists with special training in toxicology are available to help guide you in these anxious moments after your child swallows or is exposed to a possible dangerous substance. Medications not intended for specific child can be harmful, but by getting professional advice right away, you can ensure your child has the best possible outcome.

The Poison Control Center offers information and treatment advice to the public and healthcare professionals for free through its hotline (1-800-222-1222) and provides downloadable resources on its website at

“We’re here to help families and we’re only a phone call away,” Pacholski says.

Learn what we need to know to help you when you call the Poison Control Center.

Contributed by: Marguerite A. Pacholski, RN, BSN

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