One in 20 prescriptions contains an error, so it’s worth checking those pills will do what you want them to.

Do you read the medicine information leaflet before you take medication? Most of us don’t, probably because the list of side-effects of even the humble paracetamol is scary as hell and the yards of print make you lose the will to live. But given that about 1 in 20 prescriptions contains an error, ranging from the harmless to the dangerous, we should really read the leaflet before popping the pill. And a major new report by the Academy of Medical Sciences that includes a recommendation to improve the information leaflets is very welcome. In the meantime, here’s a guide to speed-reading the current pamphlets.

What is drug X and what is it used for?

You should already know this. But prescribers can get your name wrong, mix up drugs and give you a drug for constipation when you said you had diarrhoea. Pharmacists are great at picking up errors, but it’s your health on the line, so check.

What you need to know before you take drug X

Read this, especially the first subsection, “Do not take drug X if …” It includes warnings about allergic reactions, other conditions such as diabetes or epilepsy that may worsen if you take the drug, and potentially dangerous interactions with other medication. “Warnings and precautions” are less likely to flag up serious problems but are still worth a read. Lots of drugs are labelled as not being suitable for kids and pregnant or breastfeeding women – often because they haven’t been tested in those groups rather than because they are known to be dangerous. Ask the pharmacist or visit the British National Formulary website for detailed, accurate information. Read the bit about “driving and using machines” because to ignore it is dangerous and potentially illegal. There’s one more little bit about “drug X with food and drink”; some drugs need to be taken with or after food to avoid stomach ulcers; others need to be taken on an empty stomach to make sure they are fully absorbed.

How to take drug X

This tells you when and how often, but this information is written on the packet so you can skip this section.

If you take more drug X than you should

You don’t need to read this unless you do.

Possible side-effects

This is the section that deters many people from taking the drug. I wouldn’t read it at all unless I developed unexplained, new, worrying symptoms after starting the drug. If it seemed clear to me that the symptom only began after starting the drug, with no other likely explanation, I would assume it’s a side-effect, whether it appears on the list or not.

How to store drug X

Most drugs should be in a cupboard, out of reach of kids and pets. Not in the fridge, or oven or wet place. Give surplus stuff back to a pharmacist.

What drug X contains

The chemical composition; for chemists, geeks and the bored.