Learn to Read a Prescription

It is important to learn about the medicine your doctor prescribes for you. A lot of the information about the medicine is on the prescription. A prescription is an order the doctor writes so a pharmacist can prepare the correct medicine for you. There are many different words and abbreviations that doctors and pharmacists use on prescriptions that you may not understand. Many of these terms come from the Latin language. Also, a prescription has different sections that contain specific information. We would like to help you understand prescriptions better by explaining each section and translating the Latin words and abbreviations into English.

*For purposes of this article a prescriber can be any person authorized to write prescriptions in your state such as a doctor, dentist, physicians assistant, or nurse practitioner.

A. Your prescriber’s information. A prescription must include the prescriber’s name, professional title (e.g., MD, DO, CRNP), the address of the prescriber’s office, and a telephone number where the prescriber can be reached.

B. Identification numbers. The prescriber is assigned special identification numbers:

C. Your information. A prescription must include information to identify you. This includes your first and last name, your address (not required in all states), and your date of birth (DOB).

D. Rx. This is the symbol used for “prescription.” It has many possible origins. It may stem from an ancient symbol for the eye of the Egyptian god Horus, who was called the “father of pharmacy.” It could also stem from the Latin word for recipe (Recipere) meaning “take thou.”

E. Medicine name and strength. This is where your prescriber indicates the name and strength of the medicine that is being prescribed. Writing both the brand (name given to a medicine by the company) and generic (common drug name) names is helpful to the pharmacist so that the medicine prescribed is less likely to be misread as another medicine with a similar name. Most medicines come in different strengths, so it is important for the prescriber to indicate which strength is needed. Sometimes the strength needed depends on your age or weight.

F. Disp. “Disp” is an abbreviation for dispense. Your doctor will tell the pharmacist the total number of tablets or capsules, or how much liquid medicine to give you. Depending on state laws and the type of medicine prescribed, the quantity may be required to be written both in numbers and words.

G. Sig. This is an abbreviation that means instructions. The abbreviation stems from the Latin word signa (write) or signetur (let it be labeled). These are the instructions or directions the pharmacist will place on the label that goes on your medicine. Many times, additional abbreviations are used to describe when and how to take or use your medicine. You can use the table below to help translate the most common abbreviations used on a prescription.

H. Indication. The prescriber should list the reason you will be taking the medicine. This information helps the pharmacist avoid misreading the prescribed medicine as a different medicine with a similar name. The indication may be included in the same line as the Sig.

I. Refills. In this section, your prescriber will tell the pharmacist how many times the prescription can be refilled before you need a new prescription.

J. Substitution permissible. If available, all prescriptions can be filled with a generic medicine (equal to the brand medicine prescribed) if your prescriber signs the prescription on this line. If your doctor wants the pharmacist to give you a specific brand of medicine, they must specifically note this or sign in the space provided. Sometimes the prescriber will need to write DAW which means “Dispense as written.” So if the prescriber writes the brand name of the medicine, and writes DAW, then the brand name medicine must be dispensed.

K. Prescriber signature. Prescriptions may be sent electronically from the prescriber’s computer directly to the pharmacy. Or, if the prescriber hands you a prescription to take to the pharmacy to be filled, it must be signed by the prescriber.

L. Date. The prescription must indicate the date on which was written. The prescription will usually (depending on the state) be valid up to one year. Controlled substances usually will only be valid for up to six months.