How to Decode Medical Abbreviations on Pharmacy Prescriptions

Categories: Drug Safety, Online Pharmacy Safety | Posted On:

Millions of Americans admit to skipping essential medications because they can’t afford to buy them. No wonder that millions of Americans are also turning to the affordable medication option: purchasing prescriptions online.

If you’re handling your own prescription purchases, though, you’ll have to navigate the medical abbreviations that pharmacists use.

Don’t worry: prescription abbreviations aren’t as intimidating as they seem. If you’re ready to learn what medical abbreviations mean, keep reading. We’ll explain the common abbreviations you’ll see, tips for understanding them, and what you should know before safely ordering your own medication.

What You Should Know About Abbreviations

Pharmacist prescriptions use technical jargon instead of common phrases. You’ll see terms like “QD” instead of simply saying “every day.” So why do they do it?

Drugs come in all shapes, sizes, formulas, and concentrations. You might be able to get the same drug in a variety of pill shapes and colors, as an injectable liquid, and in all different strengths. That’s confusing – and, at times, it’s dangerous.

The right medication at the wrong time, or in the wrong amount, can be harmful to you. That’s why pharmacists have developed a detailed system of abbreviations. These abbreviations describe exactly how and when medications should be taken.

This notation system can look complicated at first glance, but there is good news: medical abbreviations are internationally standardized.

That means that if you’re ordering prescriptions from a pharmacy in Canada, you’ll use the same medical terms. You’ll use the same prescription abbreviations no matter where your medication comes from.

How to Understand Medical Abbreviations

Memorizing a list of abbreviations that don’t seem to make sense is almost impossible. It’s easier to remember medical abbreviations when you know what they mean. 

Here’s a tip: most medical abbreviations are really just Latin words. 

For instance, you may have seen the abbreviation “PRN” (or “p.r.n”) on your medication bottle. It’s most commonly found on pain and nausea medication.

Why? Because “PRN” stands for the Latin phrase “pro re nata,” meaning “as needed.” A PRN medication is one that you don’t schedule into your day, but take whenever you need it.

Some common PRN medications include:

  • Pain relief medications (including anti-inflammatory painkillers and some opioid pain medications)
  • Some anti-anxiety medications
  • Anti-nausea medications

If you’re taking your medication before you eat, it’s called “A.C.” or “ante cibum” — before meals. After meals, you’ll see the abbreviation “P.C.” for “post cibum.”

You don’t have to be fluent in Latin to understand your medication instructions. However, remembering a few Latin words will help you understand what your prescriptions mean. You’ll forget them better so that you can order your medications safely.

Prescription Abbreviations
Decode Your Prescription Abbreviations

Common Prescription Abbreviations

You don’t need to know every medication abbreviation to order medication. Learning the most common abbreviations is a good place to start. Begin by learning the abbreviations that will most likely show up in your prescriptions. 

When to Take Your Medications

Once a day? Twice a day? Every eight hours?

Here are the most common medical abbreviations that deal with when to take your medications:

  • Q: every (as in every day, every night)
  • QD (or OD): every day
  • BID: twice every day
  • TID: three times every day
  • QID: four times every day
  • Q8H: every eight hours
  • AC: before meals
  • PC: after meals
  • HS: nighttime

When you take your medication is just as important as what you take. That’s why it’s crucial to understand the abbreviations that refer to medication timing.

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How to Take Your Medications

You can take medications by eating, drinking, inhaling, injecting, and more. Each way of administering medication has its own benefits and risks.

If your doctor has prescribed a certain route for your medication, don’t order a different one. For instance, if your prescription is for a pill, don’t order an injection instead. This could cause dangerous side effects.

Here are the most common abbreviations for how to take your medication:

  • TAB: tablet (pill)
  • IM: intramuscular injection
  • SC (or subQ): subcutaneous injection
  • PO: ingest orally (swallowing or drinking)
  • SL: sublingual (place the pill under your tongue and wait for it to dissolve)
  • BUCC: buccal (between the cheek and gum)

If you have any questions about how your medications should be taken,  clarify them with your doctor before you purchase. 

Putting It All Together

Let’s look at an example of how your doctor might write a prescription: “2 tabs PO TID AC.” 

The doctor is telling you to take your medication in tablet (pill) form. You should take two tablets three times a day, making sure to take them before you eat meals (i.e., on an empty stomach).

Confusing Common Abbreviations

Errors in medication orders account for 50% of medication errors, which can lead to dangerous overdosing or underdosing. 

You can avoid risky medical mistakes by being careful not to confuse medical abbreviations. Here are some of the most confusing medical abbreviations to watch out for:

QD and QID

QD stands for every day. It usually means that you will take your medication once a day.

QID looks similar, but it really means “four times a day.” If your doctor’s handwriting is unclear, you could get these two instructions confused. Make sure you understand which one your doctor means so you take your medication correctly.

PO and SL

You may think that taking a pill is straightforward. However, there are two ways you can take a tablet: by swallowing it (PO) or placing it under your tongue to dissolve (SL).

If you don’t understand this distinction you could take the medication the wrong way, leading to the medication being absorbed into your bloodstream too fast or too slow.

IU and 10

The abbreviation IU stands for “international units.” This is the standard unit of measurement for insulin. However, if your doctor’s handwriting is messy, this abbreviation can look like the number 10 or the abbreviation IV.

This is one of the most error-prone abbreviations in the medical world. If you misread this abbreviation, you could end up taking the wrong amount of insulin. This leads to serious medical problems.

Don’t Be Mystified by Medical Abbreviations

Ordering medications internationally is easier than ever. Medical abbreviations can seem intimidating, but there’s no reason to let them keep you from taking control of your prescriptions.

With this article, you’ll be able to understand medical abbreviations so that you can confidently source your own medications.

Are you ready for incredible savings on your pharmacy prescriptions? If so, it’s time to join the millions of Americans who have turned to eDrugSearch for their medications. Find your medication with us today to start saving safely.

About Cary Byrd

eDrugSearch founder, Cary Byrd, has been called an “e-health innovator” by MarketIntellNow, interviewed by top pharmaceutical industry journalists, invited to Matthew Holt’s Health 2.0 Conference and a Consumer Report's health summit, and highlighted on numerous health blogs.

Medical Abbreviations

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