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Generic medicines vs brand names

Every medicine has an approved generic name. If it is made by several companies, each will also give the medicine a brand (trade) name. So one medicine may have a generic name and also have one or more brand names. This can sometimes lead to confusion.

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What are generic medicines?

Each medicine has an approved name called the generic name. A group of medicines that have similar actions often have similar-sounding generic names. For example, phenoxymethylpenicillin, ampicillin, amoxicillin and flucloxacillin are in one group of antibiotics.

What are brand name medicines?

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 the 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.

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Combination products

Some tablets or pills contain a combination of medicines. Combination products are often marketed and sold with a brand (trade) 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 Solpadol®. This contains two generic medicines - paracetamol and codeine. It can also be prescribed under its generic name of co-codamol.

Generic prescribing

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

  • The generic medicine name is the one doctors are trained to use. There are sometimes many brand (trade) 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.

  • If generic medicine is prescribed, a pharmacist can dispense any suitable (available) product to the patient. This cuts out the risk of delays in the patient receiving their treatment whilst waiting for a specific brand.

A few medicines, however, are always prescribed by the specific brand. This is because there are significant differences between the different brands in the amount you end up having in your body (bioavailability). Examples of these type of medicines are:

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What about quality of medicines?

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

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

Further reading and references

  • British National Formulary (BNF); NICE Evidence Services (UK access only)
  • Gozzo L, Caraci F, Drago F; Bioequivalence, Drugs with Narrow Therapeutic Index and The Phenomenon of Biocreep: A Critical Analysis of the System for Generic Substitution. Healthcare (Basel). 2022 Jul 26;10(8):1392. doi: 10.3390/healthcare10081392.

Article history

The information on this page is written and peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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