Understanding Your Prescription

BID? PRN? PO? Find out what these medical abbreviations mean.

Fortunately, many prescriptions are no longer handwritten but computer-generated and transmitted electronically to your pharmacy. However, some prescriptions are handwritten, and you may wonder how a pharmacist manages to read the doctor’s handwritten prescription? However, this article is not about reading a doctor's handwriting, rather it is to help you understand your prescription.
Female pharmacist handing elderly patient a prescriptionMany pharmacies ask patients if they have questions before they leave with the prescribed medication.

Medical Abbreviations on Your Prescription

Seriously, how would you decipher “drug name 250 mg PO bid x 5 days?” To start, the first part of a prescription is the name of the drug; it can be a brand name or generic. The next part—250 mg—denotes the strength of the drug. In this case, it's 250 milligrams. “PO” means the medication is taken by mouth “bid” or twice a day. The ‘x’ indicates this prescription is taken for a period of 5 days.

Some people think that Rx means prescription. In a way it does. However, Rx is the abbreviation for the Latin word meaning "recipe." The abbreviations used in prescriptions are derived from Latin terms. Listed below are many commonly used today.

Latin Term
before meals ante cibum
twice a day bis in die
 cap capsule capsula
 gt drop gutta
 hs at bedtime hora somni
 od right eye oculus dexter
 os left eye oculus sinister
 po by mouth per os
 pc after meals post cibum
 pil pill pilula
 prn as needed pro re nata
 q2h every 2 hours quaque 2 hora
 qd every day quaque die
 qh every hour quaque hora
 qid 4 times a day quater in die
 tab tablet tabella
 tid 3 times a day ter in die

Understanding your prescription entails more than just filling it at the pharmacy. Remember: no drug is without risk. The following guidelines are designed to help you at your doctor’s office, the pharmacy, and at home.

Talk With Your Doctor

  • Make sure your doctor knows everything about your medical history. Be sure to include past reactions (eg, rashes, indigestion, dizziness, loss of appetite) to medications, even if minor.
  • Do you take vitamins, supplements, and/or herbs? It is important your doctor knows what you take, how much, and how often. Why? Some supplements are known to react with certain drugs.
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) medications are drugs! Just because they can be purchased without a prescription does not mean they can be taken without risk. Make your doctor aware of precisely what you take, the dosage, frequency, and why.
  • Ask your doctor the name of the medication being prescribed.
  • While you are with your doctor, discuss the use of the medication. What is the correct dose, how often it is to be taken, what to do if a dose is missed, possible interactions with other medications taken (including OTC), and what to do if a reaction to the drug occurs. What is the drug used for? How is it supposed to work? Possible side effects? Will your activity level be affected? Can it be taken with coffee, alcohol, dietary supplements, and so on?
  • Take notes! This will help you remember when you get home.
  • Feel free to ask your doctor for available written information about the specific drug to be prescribed.

What to Know At the Pharmacy

  • Does your pharmacist have your patient profile? Many pharmacies ask for information that is included in your record such as allergies and other medications taken. This may prevent a drug interaction problem.
  • Are there children or young adults in your home? If so, ask for tamper resistant caps. In this case, an ounce of prevention may eliminate the need for a cure!
  • Ask your pharmacist to include what the drug is used for on the label.
  • If you don’t remember how to take your prescription, ask the pharmacist. Many pharmacies ask patients if they have questions before they leave with the prescribed medication.
  • In some cases, the doctor will telephone your prescription (eg, refill) into the pharmacy. It is a good idea to review the dose and frequency with the doctor or pharmacist.
  • If a new drug has been prescribed, ask the pharmacist to fill half the prescription. If a reaction or side effect develops, you potentially save yourself half the total cost.
  • Will you be traveling to a different climate? Some medications do not work properly if the patient is exposed to the sun or other element.
  • Some pills or tablets are large and may be difficult to swallow. Check with the pharmacist before crushing or splitting. Some drugs can only be taken swallowed whole.

At Home: Tips for Medication Safety

  • Do you have children in your household? If so, don’t keep your medication in the nightstand or your purse. Always keep drugs in a secure locked area.
  • Keep an antidote such as Syrup of Ipecac on hand just in case. This is used to induce vomiting if a poison is swallowed. Familiarize yourself with the dosing directions and precautions prior to an unexpected emergency. Post the phone numbers for your poison control center and EMS.
  • If you experience a reaction or any side effects, call your doctor immediately.
  • Do not mix your medication in with other drugs and their containers. Keep each medication in the bottle it came in. Mixing drugs in one container can alter their stability.
  • Keep you medication in a dark, dry, and cool (not refrigerated unless designated) area. Heat, light, and moisture can affect a drug’s stability.
  • Always take your medication as directed by your doctor. Drugs strong enough to heal can also hurt if taken incorrectly.
  • Never share or take anyone else’s medication.
  • Do not take medication in the dark.
  • Only give a child medication when you are fully awake and alert.
  • Some prescriptions or OTC products come with cups for dosing. Cups differ in size and dosing measurements. Do not use a cup from another product.
  • When the prescription expires, destroy the unused medication and bottle.
  • Some pharmacies will take care of this for you.
  • Keep a list including your medical history and drugs taken on a regular basis (dose and frequency) in your wallet near your insurance identification. This information may come in handy during a medical emergency.

Understanding your prescription is a key to treating the condition for which it was prescribed. Taking the above medication tips into consideration may help you and your family to be healthy and safe.

Updated on: 08/10/21
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