Why the same medicines can have different names

The names of medicines can often be confusing, as the same medicine can sometimes be called different things.

Many medicines have two names:

  • the brand name given to a medicine by the pharmaceutical company it is developed by
  • the scientific or generic name for the active ingredient of the medicine that is decided by an expert committee

For example, sildenafil is the generic name of a medicine used to treat erectile dysfunction. However, the company that makes sildenafil, Pfizer, sells it under the brand name Viagra.

Both medicines have the same clinical effect, but each separate manufacturer can give it a different name.

It is similar to buying branded goods or a supermarket’s own label; both products do the same job but the supermarket’s own version is usually cheaper.

Brand names 

During the first few years a new medicine becomes available, it is usually marketed as a brand, under a name given by the pharmaceutical company that developed it.

Companies take out patents (exclusive rights) on each new drug they discover to ensure they regain the money they spend on its development – which can be as much as £1 billion – and make a profit.

Having a patent means only that company can produce the medicine for a certain length of time. In the UK, the standard patent lasts 20 years, although this can sometimes be extended by up to another five years.

On average, it takes the first 10-15 years of this period to develop the medicine and obtain a licence (read more about licensing medicines). The company has the remaining years during which only they can produce and sell the medicine to recover their costs and make a profit. They give the medicine a brand name for marketing purposes to make it more memorable, such as Viagra. 

Generic names 

Once the patent protection expires, other companies can produce their own version of the medicine. For example, ibuprofen is the generic name of a medicine commonly used to treat pain and inflammation. There are many branded versions of ibuprofen, such as Nurofen and Hedex. However, it is also sold under the generic name ‘ibuprofen’ but made by different manufacturers, such as Boots or Tesco.

Generic medicines are usually cheaper because there are fewer research and development costs, but they contain the same active ingredient as the branded products.

Generic medicines go through the same detailed safety and quality requirements as the original branded product. Read more about regulating the safety of medicines.

Prescribing generic medicines

Prescribers (people who prescribe medicines, such as GPs) are encouraged to prescribe medicines by their generic name. This is because generic medicines are usually as effective as the branded versions, but can cost up to 80% less.

This frees up NHS resources to pay for other treatments. It also gives the pharmacist the widest choice of products to dispense. This can be important, particularly if there is a shortage of a particular product.

Switching to a generic medicine

If your prescriber changes your regular prescription from a branded medicine to a generic version, they should tell you about the change before you collect your prescription.

This is to ensure you understand that although your medicine may have a different name, it will still contain the same active ingredient. Your pharmacist can also be a helpful source of information and advice when this happens.

When you pick up your prescription, the medicine may look different and there will be a different name on the label. However, it will contain the same active ingredient as the medicine you used before.

Generic medicines with different activity

In rare cases, it is important for a patient to stay on the branded medicine previously prescribed for them, rather than changing to a generic medicine. In such cases, the branded medicine is the most suitable product.

Some examples of when you should keep taking your brand of prescribed medicine include:

  • Epilepsy medicines – these should be treated with care because different versions may have slight differences in the way they are absorbed, which can cause big differences in their effect; for example, prescribers may decide that the branded version of lamotrigine (Lamictal) is more suitable than the generic version.
  • Modified-release preparations of medicines – such as modified release versions of theophylline, nifedipine, diltiazem and verapamil; a branded version may sometimes be a better option than the generic equivalent as they can be absorbed differently. 
  • Ciclosporin – a medicine that suppresses the immune system (the body’s natural defence system); different branded versions may cause different levels of ciclosporin in your blood.
  • Mesalazine – which is used to treat ulcerative colitis (a long-term condition that affects the colon); the way that mesalazine is absorbed varies between different brands.
  • Lithium – this treats a number of mental health conditions; different brands vary widely in terms of how much of the medicine is absorbed and becomes active.  
  • Beclometasone dipropionate CFC-free inhalers to treat asthma – there are two inhalers that contain the same active substance (beclometasone dipropionate), but one is much stronger. 
  • Any product where the generic name could cause confusion, such as hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and insulins (used to treat diabetes).

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