At least 4 million people a year have bad reactions to medication because they didn't read the label. Better visibility might help.
When was the last time you looked at that extra label pasted on your prescription bottles?
Sometimes it's vertical, and sometimes it's horizontal. It often says something such as, "May cause drowsiness. Alcohol may intensify the effects. Use care when operating a car or dangerous machinery."
That's pretty routine, actually, but each year at least 4 million Americans experience some sort of adverse reaction to prescription medications, some because they didn't read the label.
The reactions -- ranging from mild rashes to hospitalization to death -- could be avoided if warning labels were more effective, according to a Michigan State University study.
The study revealed only half of the survey participants looked at the warning label and 22 percent didn't look at any labels, said Laura Bix, associate professor at Michigan State's School of Packaging. She concluded that relatively simple changes could improve the labels' effectiveness.
"Given our results, we are recommending a complete overhaul of the design and labeling of the ubiquitous amber bottles, which have seen little change since their introduction 50 years ago," she wrote in her report.
"Our initial recommendations would be to move all of the warnings from the colored stickers to the main white label."
The change is especially important on prescriptions used by patients 50 and over, Bix said.
"Students in our study tend to rotate the vial and actively search for information," she said. "Older folks assume they are going to know what's on there, so they don't read it."
Bix said she doesn't know why older prescription users don't read warning labels.
"It could be difficulties in vision or perception, or it could just be lack of awareness," she said.
She added that a way needs to be found to ensure that patients notice the warning labels and heed them.
"I believe too many of these warnings are pasted on the bottle vertically," she said. "I recommend a horizontal application at the bottom of the regular prescription information."
Her students found that, on average, more than 30 percent of those 65 and older take 10 medications daily, which increases the likelihood of adverse reactions, she said.
The issue is complicated further because older participants were less likely to notice or remember the warnings.
Not surprisingly, more people who saw the stickers could recall them better, she said, suggesting that enhancing the labels' visibility is key.
The study results highlight the importance of studying how people notice and pay attention to the labels, said Mark Becker, assistant professor of cognition and cognitive neuroscience at Michigan State.
"By applying basic research on the control of attention to the design of labels, we may greatly improve their effectiveness," he said in the report.