Overview of Prescription Abbreviations

When your healthcare provider hands you a prescription for your medication, you may think some of it is written in another language – perhaps because of its poor handwriting and/or confusing abbreviations and symbols.

Common Prescription Abbreviations

Many of the abbreviations on prescriptions relate to how often a person should take the drug, such as before meals, or the route of administration, such as inhalation versus oral.

Common Abbreviations
abbreviation significance
communicate or communicate before eating
bid or bid twice a day
hs or hs bedtime
Britain Inhalation (such as asthma rescue inhaler)
computer or computer after eating
precious Oral (every oral dose)
prn or prn as required
SC or SQ subcutaneously (such as insulin injections)
begging for help if necessary
tid or tid 3 times a day

The problem with medical abbreviations is that they can be misread or misinterpreted by pharmacists, leading to medication errors that can be harmful to patients. Poor handwriting is common, and slipping fingers on electronic prescriptions is not far-fetched.

forbidden medical abbreviation

To prevent these medical errors, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals (JCAH) created a list of “do not use” abbreviations in 2003.

According to the JCAH, for the following abbreviations, healthcare providers must write the full word, not the abbreviation, on any handwritten order or medication-related document (including computer forms with free text) or preprinted forms.

JCAH does not use manifests
abbreviation significance question use instead
IU international unit May be mistaken for IV or number 10 Write “International Unit”
Missing leading zero (eg 0.5 mg) May miss decimal points, leading to overdose Write 0.X mg
MgSO4, MS, MSO4 Magnesium sulfate or morphine sulfate can be confused with each other Morphine sulfate or magnesium sulfate must be written
QD, QD, qd, qd Daily May be mistaken for QOD write “every day”
QOD, QOD, qod, qod every other day Periods after Q and O can be mistaken for “I” Write “every other day”
trailing zeros (eg 1.0 mg) May miss decimal points, leading to overdose Write X mg
you or you unit May be mistaken for 0, 4. or cc write “unit”

more error prone acronym

In 2005, the Institute of Medical Practice (ISMP) also created a list of medical abbreviations that can lead to errors.This list is much larger than the JCAHO list. Below are just a few examples.

ISMP error-prone abbreviation example
abbreviation significance question use instead
cc cubic centimeter May be mistaken for U (unit) write milliliters or milliliters
microgram microgram May be mistaken for milligrams (milligrams), resulting in an overdose Write out micrograms or use mcg
SC or SQ subcutaneous SC may be mistaken for SL (sublingual) and SQ may be mistaken for “5 each” Write out subcutaneously or use subcut
@ exist May be confused with number 2 write on
& and May be confused with number 2 write and

bottom line

In good practice, your healthcare provider should include a full medical description on the prescription, including the name of the drug, the frequency of intake, and the route of administration—for example, ciprofloxacin 250 mg orally once daily. This ensures clear communication with the pharmacist and/or nurse and optimizes your safety as a patient.

Notify your healthcare provider and pharmacist right away if you suspect that your prescription is in error—errors can happen even with abbreviated guidelines. Trust your intuition and keen eyes. You don’t want to be the victim of medical malpractice.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does prn in medicine mean?

    The abbreviation prn or prn on the prescription means need.it stands for latin phrase before dyingwhich means “depending on the situation”.

  • What does a bid on a prescription mean?

    twice a day.Bid or bid is death two, A Latin phrase that translates to twice a day.

  • What does the tid on the prescription mean?

    three times a day. Tid or tid is short for escapea Latin phrase that translates to three times a day.

  • What does SQ mean?

    SQ is an acronym for medical subepithelial, which means subcutaneous. It usually refers to an injection with a short needle that delivers the drug to the fatty tissue under the skin. For example, insulin is administered as a subcutaneous injection.

  • What does po on a prescription mean?

    Oral route. Po or po on the prescription means the drug is taken by mouth.it is an abbreviation of latin word By operating system, which means through the mouth. Sometimes recorded orally.

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6 sources

VigorTip Health uses only high-quality resources, including peer-reviewed research, to support the facts in our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.

  1. Dyasanoor S, Urooge A. Insights into prescription writing quality – an institutional study. Journal of Clinical Diagnostics. 2016;10(3):ZC61-ZC64. doi: 10.7860/JCDR/2016/18011.7472

  2. Weaver JM. Time to ditch the old-fashioned Latin abbreviations. anesthesia procedure2006;53(1):1-2. doi: 10.2344/0003-3006(2006)53[1:ITTTOO]2.0.CO;2

  3. Velo GP, Minuz P. Medication errors: prescribing errors and prescribing errors. Br J Clinical Pharmacology2009;67(6):624–628. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2125.2009.03425.x

  4. Sokol DK, Hettige S. Poor handwriting remains a major problem in the medical community. JR Soc Med2006;99(12):645–646. doi: 10.1258/jrsm.99.12.645

  5. Thompson CA. JCAHO publishes a “do not use” list of dangerous abbreviations. Am J Health Syst Pharm2003;60(24):2540–2542. doi:10.1093/ajhp/60.24.2540

  6. Institute for Safe Medication Practice. Error-prone list of abbreviations. October 2, 2017.

Additional reading

  • Glassman P. Making Healthcare Safer II: A New Critical Analysis of the Evidence for Patient Safety Practices. Chapter 5 Joint Committee’s “Do Not Use” Checklist: A Brief Review (New). Rockville: Evidence Reporting/Technical Assessment, No. 211, 2013.
  • Kuhn, IF Abbreviations and Acronyms in Healthcare: Shorter Less Sweet. Pediatric Nursing2007 Sep-Oct;33(5):392-8.

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