Seniors  |  Adults  |  Medication safety  |  Medicines

Generic Drugs versus Brand Name Drugs

The Bottom Line

Generic medicines have the same active ingredients and effects as brand name medicines, but they may be a different color, shape, or size. For many years, U.S. law has required that generic drugs look different from brand names. Many different drug companies may make versions of the same medicine. Generic drugs are less expensive than brand name drugs.

The Full Story

I just picked up my prescription. The pills look different from my last refill. What should I do? To be sure you have the right medicine, you can do any one of the following:

  • Use the webPOISONCONTROL® pill identifier to identify the pills you received by typing in the letters and numbers that appear on the pill.
  • Call the pharmacy that filled your prescription, or bring your medicine back to the pharmacy, and ask the pharmacist why it looks different. 
  • Call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 for help identifying the pills you received.

Probably, the medicine is a generic medicine. Generic medicines have the same active ingredients as brand name medicines. They have the same effects as brand name drugs. But, they may be a different color, shape, or size. And, they are less expensive than brand name drugs.

Many different drug companies may make versions of the same medicine. For example, the drug Prozac® is a brand name. Its generic name is fluoxetine. There are more than 30 different generic types of fluoxetine in the 20 milligram dose alone!  Medicine may look different each time you refill a prescription, if the pharmacy orders from different drug companies.

For many years, U.S. law has required that generic drugs look different from brand names. This was to prevent drug makers from selling counterfeit drugs. If the drugs looked too much alike, patients and doctors could be confused. And, many states did not allow generic drugs to be sold. This was to prevent pharmacies from cheating people by charging brand-name prices for look-alike generic drugs.

The world of generic drugs has changed a lot since then. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that generic drugs contain the same active ingredients as brand name drugs. They must be absorbed into the body at the same rate. They must be as effective as the brand name drugs. But usually, they do look different from brand name drugs.

There are some times when brand name drugs are the right choice – or even the only choice.

  • A brand name drug may be sold for seventeen years without generic competition. This is to allow drug makers to earn back the money they spent on researching, developing, and gaining federal approval for the drug.
  • Brand name drugs and generic drugs may have different inactive ingredients. This could matter if a patient is allergic to an ingredient.
  • Some medical conditions can be managed well only if there is no change at all in the patient's drugs, even the very minor changes that could occur with some generic drugs.

When picking up medication from the pharmacy, don't be afraid to open up the bottle and look at the medication. If it looks different, ask the pharmacist why. Review the strength of the medicine and the dose with the pharmacist. Make sure nothing else has changed.

If you think you took the wrong drug by mistake, use the webPOISONCONTROL® online tool for guidance or call Poison Control at 1-800-222-122 right away. You will get help, 24 hours a day.

Shannon Lee, RPh, BSPharm
Certified Specialist in Poison Information

Rose Ann Gould Soloway, RN, BSN, MSEd, DABAT emerita
Clinical Toxicologist


For More Information

U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Drug Evaluation of Research. Facts about generic drugs. [Internet]. Rockville (MD): U.S. Food and Drug Administration; [cited 2014 Jan 28]; [2 screens].

References

Green JA, Kesselheim AS. Why do the same drugs look different? Pills, trade dress, and public health. NEJM. 2011;365:83-89.

Poisoned?

Call 1-800-222-1222 or

HELP ME online

Prevention Tips

When picking up medication from the pharmacy, don't be afraid to open up the bottle and look at the medication.  If it looks different, ask the pharmacist why. Review the strength of the medicine and the dose with the pharmacist. Make sure nothing else has changed.

This Really Happened

A 20-year-old woman was prescribed an antibiotic for chronic acne. When the prescription was refilled, the pill looked different from before. However, she took 3 doses over a 24-hour period. She then developed dizziness and used an online pill identifier to determine the drug was a diabetes medication. She went to the emergency room and her physician called Poison Control. Poison Control advised several hours of monitoring for low blood sugar. She was observed in the emergency room for some time before being discharged home. The dispensing pharmacy was notified and acknowledged the error.