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Richard Clark

Decoding Medical Prescriptions with Wolfram|Alpha

March 7, 2013 —
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I’m not a doctor, but for the purpose of this blog post, please imagine that I am wearing a lab coat and a stethoscope—maybe even two stethoscopes, just to be extra professional. Wolfram|Alpha now has an understanding of sig codes, which are the marks on your drug prescriptions that tell the pharmacist what it is you’re getting, what it does, and when precisely it should be taken. Patients aren’t often exposed to sig codes these days, but pharmacy techs learn them, since they receive these abbreviated instructions from the doctor. If you are exposed to sig codes, they’re written on the piece of paper your doctor gives you to take to the pharmacist.

I had always believed, incorrectly it turns out, that doctors wrote real words on prescriptions, and I was merely terrible at reading what they wrote. In reality, they were using sig codes, which is like shorthand, and it’s rather important for pharmacists to know what they stand for—especially since I could easily see a “B” getting mistaken for a “D,” or an “E” being mistaken for an “F.”

So let’s start with something simple. If it’s only a single code that you’re looking to define, no problem. Many sig codes are abbreviations of Latin, so the sig code BID means “bis in die,” or twice per day. We also provide similarly written codes and their descriptions. (Darn it, Jim, I’m a doctor, not a linguist.)

sig code BID

That said, you can also combine multiple sig codes together, and we’ll interpret the inputs in the order they’re given. Just write the sig codes into the Wolfram|Alpha query bar, and we’ll give you tons of information on them.

sig code Amoxicillin 250/5mL. 1 tsp PO TID x10d

In the case above, we can see that Amoxicillin 250/5 ML. 1 tsp PO TID X10D means that you are taking 250 ml of amoxicillin, in doses of one teaspoon by mouth, three times a day, for ten days. Following this, we show you the structure diagram for amoxicillin, as well as its 3D structure, which drugs interact with it, and what its basic drug properties are. (In this case, it’s an antibacterial agent.)

By virtue of the fact that sig codes are Latin abbreviations, you could feasibly see “PO QAM” on a prescription. If I didn’t know that had a special meaning, it would make me think I was a crazy person.

sig code D/C Levoxyl 137mcg. Start Synthroid 125mcg, DAW. 1 tab PO QAM, NPO x 1 degree

So what does “PO QAM” mean? By mouth, every morning. Specifically, the above query is for the patient to discontinue Levoxyl and start up on Synthroid, an anti-thyroid agent. After taking the drug in tablet form, the patient is to refrain from eating for one hour.

In order to interpret various sig codes in Wolfram|Alpha, type in “sig code” followed by the rest of your query. Just be aware that while we can tell you what the various codes and drugs are, we interpret them as they’re entered, so a random selection of sig codes should not be relied on nearly as much as what a doctor prescribes you. Wolfram|Alpha is great at computing knowledge, but it’s not a replacement for your physician—yet.


would be cool if you could search by pill shape/size/imprint

Posted by Andy McSherry March 8, 2013 at 7:35 pm

This assumes that you can read your doctor’s atrocious chicken scratch to even know what sig codes s/he is using. Why don’t they teach how to write English letters properly in medical school?

Posted by Sun March 11, 2013 at 3:07 pm

Very useful thing for patients

Posted by Amy June 19, 2014 at 1:35 am

This is great. I can’t tell you how often I am confused by the labels. This clears it up!!

Posted by Jennifer Marie September 17, 2014 at 8:15 pm

Thanks for the breakdown. I always get worried about my grandma reading these labels and taking in the wrong amounts. Her doctor’s handwriting doesn’t help! I always print off some extra large font labels from my computer to stick on her bottles.

Posted by Alyson March 7, 2015 at 6:12 am