Generic vs Brand Name Medicines

Every medicine (drug) has an approved generic name. Often, it will also have one or more brand (trade) names. This can sometimes lead to confusion.

  • Generic name. Each medicine (drug) has an approved name called the generic name. A group of medicines that have similar actions often have similar-sounding generic names. For example, penicillin, ampicillin, amoxicillin and flucloxacillin are in one group of antibiotics.
  • Brand name. Many medicines also have one or more brand names. This is chosen by the company that makes it. Several companies may make the same generic medicine, each with their own brand name. The name is often chosen to be memorable for advertising, or to be easier to say or spell than some long generic name! For example, paracetamol is a generic name. There are several companies that make this with brand names such as Panadol®, Calpol®, etc.

The brand name is usually written most clearly on any packaging. However, you will always see the generic name written somewhere on the packet (often in small print). Some medicines only have the generic name on the packet.

The colour, size, shape, etc, of brands of the same medicine may vary depending on which company makes it. Do not be alarmed if your regular medicine seems to have changed colour or shape. It may be that the pharmacist is getting it from a different company, or the doctor has written the prescription in a generic way rather than using a brand name. However, the medicine will be the same if the generic name is the same as before.

Some tablets or pills contain a combination of medicines. Combination products are often marketed and sold with a brand name. However, the individual ingredients (the individual medicines that are combined into the one tablet or pill) will all be listed in small print on the packet. For example, a popular painkiller has a brand name of Solpadeine®. This contains three generic medicines - paracetamol, codeine, and caffeine.

Doctors are encouraged to prescribe by using the generic name. This is because:

  • The generic name is the one doctors are trained to use. There are sometimes many brand names for one medicine. Possible confusion or mistakes are reduced if all doctors use the same names when talking about and prescribing medicines.
  • Generic medicines are often cheaper for the NHS. Even for medicines that you can buy, such as paracetamol, there is often a big price difference between brands.

In the UK there are strict quality controls before a product licence is granted for brand named or generic versions of medicines. This means that a generic or brand name version of the same medicine will be of similar quality, and have a similar action.

Check with your pharmacist if in doubt about the use of a medicine.

Original Author:
Dr Tim Kenny
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Hilary Cole
Last Checked:
28/09/2011
Document ID:
4529 (v39)
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