Patients want and need comprehensive and accurate information about their medicines so that they can participate in decisions about their healthcare. In particular, they require information about the likely risks and benefits that are associated with the different treatment options. However, to provide this information in a form that people can readily understand and use is a considerable challenge to healthcare professionals. One recent attempt to standardise the language of risk has been to produce sets of verbal descriptors that correspond to specific probability ranges, such as those outlined in the European Commission (EC) Pharmaceutical Committee guidelines in 1998 for describing the incidence of adverse effects. This paper provides an overview of a number of studies involving members of the general public, patients, and hospital doctors, that evaluated the utility of the EC guideline descriptors (very common, common, uncommon, rare, very rare). In all studies it was found that people significantly over-estimated the likelihood of adverse effects occurring, given specific verbal descriptors. This in turn resulted in significantly higher ratings of their perceived risks to health and significantly lower ratings of their likelihood of taking the medicine. Such problems of interpretation are not restricted to the EC guideline descriptors. Similar levels of misinterpretation have also been demonstrated with two other recently advocated risk scales (Calman's verbal descriptor scale and Barclay, Costigan and Davies' lottery scale). In conclusion, the challenge for risk communicators and for future research will be to produce a language of risk that is sufficiently flexible to take into account different perspectives, as well as changing circumstances and contexts of illness and its treatments. In the meantime, we urge the EC and other legislative bodies to stop recommending the use of specific verbal labels or phrases until there is a stronger evidence base to support their use.