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Do prescription medicines go by different names? — Yes. Prescription medicines go by at least 2 different names: the generic name and a brand name. For example, atorvastatin is the generic name for a cholesterol-lowering medicine. Its brand name is "Lipitor." Non-prescription medicines also go by different names.
What is a generic name? — The generic name of a medicine is the name of the active ingredient.
What is a brand name? — The brand name of a medicine is the name given by the drug maker. The brand name can be easier to say than the generic name, but they are still the same medicine.
How do I find out the brand and generic names of my medicine? — The generic name is usually printed near the brand name on the prescription label (figure 1). You can also ask your doctor or pharmacist. It's important to know both names for each of your medicines.
What are generic medicines? — Generic medicines are copies of brand name medicines. They are usually less expensive. Generic medicines have the same active ingredient as the brand name medicine they copy.
Do all medicines come as a generic copy? — No. Although all medicines have a generic name, for many newer medicines, you can't buy a generic version. That's because the maker of the brand has a patent. A patent means only the maker of the brand version is allowed to sell the medicine for several years. When the patent expires, other companies are allowed to make and sell generic copies.
The table shows some examples of brand name medicines, their generic names, and whether less expensive generic copies are available (table 1).
What is the difference between a generic medicine and a brand name medicine? — The generic medicine can have a different shape, color, coating, or flavoring than the original brand name version. Also, generic medicines usually cost less.
Why do generic medicines usually cost less than brand name medicines? — Makers of generic medicines can charge less for a medicine than the brand maker because they do not have to pay for developing or advertising the medicine. Developing new medicines and studying them can be very costly. When there is more than 1 maker of a generic medicine, competition can help keep the price down.
Can I save money by using generic medicines if I have drug insurance? — Yes. You can save money even if you have prescription drug coverage or a Medicare Part D prescription plan. This is because insurance plans have lower co-pays for generic medicines than for brand name medicines. (The co-pay is the amount of money you pay each time you get a prescription filled.) Also, if your prescription drug coverage is limited, your insurance might cover more of the cost if you use less expensive generic medicines.
Are generic medicines as good as brand name medicines? — Yes. Makers of generic medicines must follow the same government rules about strength, quality, and purity as makers of brand name medicines. The government requires careful testing of generic copies to make sure they will work as well as the brand name medicines.
How do I switch to a generic medicine? — If you would like to save money by buying generic medicines instead of brand name medicines, ask your doctor or pharmacist if there are generic medicines that could work for you.
Anytime you switch a medicine, you must work closely with your doctor. With some switches, your doctor might need to check to be sure it is working right for you.
Anytime you replace one medicine with another, for any reason, make sure you learn what the new medicine looks like and which one it is replacing. People sometimes accidentally take the same medicine twice because the brand name and generic pills look different and they think they are taking 2 different medicines.
If there is a generic version of my medicine, will I get it automatically? — Not always. It depends on laws in your area and instructions from your doctor. Check with your pharmacy and find out if there is a generic copy and if you are getting it.
Do non-prescription medicines also have brand and generic names? — Yes. A medicine you buy without a prescription is also called an "over-the-counter" or "OTC" medicine. These are sold under many different brand names and many different store brands, even though each has the same medicine in it.
One example is the common non-prescription pain reliever acetaminophen (called "paracetamol" outside the United States). Acetaminophen is sold under many different brand names, such as Tylenol and Panadol, and under store brands with names like "Extra-Strength Pain Relief" tablets or "Non-Aspirin" tablets. All of these can contain the same medicine, acetaminophen. Also, there are many cold and cough products that contain several different medicines, often including acetaminophen.
Taking too much of the same medicine could be harmful. Always read the generic names on the label of your non-prescription medicines to be sure you are not taking more than 1 product that has the same medicine in it. In the US, the generic names of a non-prescription medicine are on the label or box where it says Drug Facts and Active ingredient (figure 2).
Are "biosimilars" the same as generic medicines? — Biosimilars are close, although not exact, copies of "biologic" medicines. Biologics are complex medicines that are made in a lab using living cells. They are very costly to develop and can be very expensive.
"Biosimilar" versions are starting to become available for some biologics. These versions might be less expensive. Biosimilars are carefully tested to be sure they are as safe as and work as well as the original biologic medicine.
One example of a biologic medicine is infliximab (brand name: Remicade). This medicine is used to treat ulcerative colitis, Crohn disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. Biosimilars for Remicade are available. They include Avsola, Inflectra, and Renflexis.
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