Hey Everybody. Albert here.
When I’m not dispensing medicine, I really enjoy dispensing advice to anyone who has questions about their health. I’d like to use this forum to help others by not necessarily revealing any questions asked of me, but focus more on the answers and how we get to the answers. Hopefully this monthly article will help anyone who has had similar questions or issues but not had the opportunity to ask.
So let’s get started. One of the most frequently asked questions I hear from behind the counter is:
Why do my pills look different than last time?
Have you ever had the experience where you’ve been to your pharmacy, picked up a medication that you’ve been taking for years and all of a sudden the tablet looks different, but the label on the bottle still says the medicine is the same? Then, when you think about it… over the past three refills the tablets have either changed shape or color each time! What is going on? Is this a mistake? And why is this all happening?
It’s always good to pay attention to anything you put into your body, so I’m glad you asked. The answer to these questions is, in fact, that each time you’ve picked up your meds, you’re actually getting the same medicine, but it’s simply a different manufacturer’s generic.
“Well, what does THAT mean,” you ask? Okay, first let’s cover the basics…
What is a Generic Drug?
Name brand drugs are typically more expensive than generic drugs. When a company produces a new drug, they want to earn their money back on all of the research and development costs they incurred while making the drug ready for the public. After a while though, their exclusive patent expires and other companies are permitted to produce the same drug for less money.
How do we know if one drug is actually a generic to another?
For a pharmaceutical drug to be classified as a generic to another drug, four things have to be true:
- It has to have the same active ingredient as the branded drug
- It has to have the same amount of the active drug as the branded drug has
- It has to have the same effect on the body as the branded drug
- And it has to have the same effect for the same amount of time as the branded drug
Today there are so many pharmaceutical manufacturers out there producing medications, that it can be hard to keep up with all of them. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been charged with this huge task. They publish what’s called “The Orange Book” that lists ALL of our pharmaceutical drugs, and tells us whether or not one drug is a generic for another drug. This book is what all pharmacies use to determine if a generic is right for your prescription.
Is a Generic really as effective as the Name Brand?
As technology progresses, so do our ways of thinking about diseases and how to treat them. New discoveries are being made daily and it’s really exciting to think about what’s just around the corner. Newer drugs can act on certain cells and their receptors that we didn’t even know existed only a decade ago. With this advancement in technology there have also been advancements in manufacturing processes that allow more and more companies to produce alternatives to the higher priced brand name drugs. Those alternatives must always meet the four important requirements above, which ensures that they’ll be just as effective as the name brand.
However, while all of these generic drugs are required to work the same, they don’t have to look the same, which finally brings us to the big question:
So… Why do my pills look different than last time?
With so many alternatives and different generics out there, often one company’s generic drug is very different looking from another company’s. We get asked many questions to this effect:
“If this is a generic to the drug I picked up last month at your pharmacy, then why is it so much larger and also a different color? Shouldn’t they look the same or at the very least be the same size?”
Well, the answer to that question is that each drug manufacturer is free to make their own version of the drug, as long as that drug meets those four requirements:
- The same active ingredient
- The same amount of the active ingredient
- The same effect on the body
- The same amount of time with that effect on the body
What this means is that the pharmaceutical manufacturers can use any inactive ingredients they need to. This includes the fillers, dyes, coatings, and anything else that doesn’t affect the active ingredient, what it does, how it does it, or for how long.
We are constantly comparing prices between manufacturers, so regardless of the color, shape, or size, you can be sure that we have carefully chosen the right medication at the right price to fill your prescription.
I hope that clears up a little of the mystery behind generic drugs and how we determine whether one drug is a generic to another. If you ever have any questions about your medications or generic substitutions, NEVER hesitate to call your pharmacy! That’s what we’re here for, and we’ll be glad to help you.
Albert Pearson is a pharmacist and owner of City Drug in Brady, TX.