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What to Expect when Purchasing a Generic Medication

You’ve just returned home from your local pharmacy with a filled prescription for your routine medication, but just as you are about to take a pill out of the vial for your next dose, your heart skips a beat as you see pills that look completely nothing like the medication you usually get. You double check the name of the medication on the label only to find a name that seems to have more letters in it then humanly possible and impossible to pronounce.

This act happens thousands of times every day in homes across America and could be avoided with better patient education in regards to FDA approved generic medications. As this scenario plays out many patients immediately jump to the conclusion that someone filled their medication wrong or gave them someone else’s medication by accident. Chances are that your prescription was filled as prescribed only with a less expensive generic medication that is identical to the brand medication you were getting before.

Upon this discovery most of us go back to the pharmacy either ready with fighting words or a steady argument in place only to be assured by the pharmacist that the medication in fact is a generic medication and is what was prescribed.

So how do you know what to expect when receiving a generic medication in terms of what appears on your label and in your bottle? Here are a few areas in which generic medications stand out from their brand counterparts. Recognizing that these differences exist and yet it is the same medication can help you remain calmer when discovering unusual pills in your bottle and will lead to better education from the pharmacist when you call or return with questions. Please note that the below information, while correct, should not be your source for proof of an accurately filled medication. If you have any doubts you should contact your pharmacist before taking the medication. With that said, most pharmacies make sure the patient is aware of the new generic medication before leaving the pharmacy.

Some differences:

Size/Shape/Color: Generic medications are most often made by generic drug companies whom are independent of the brand maker of a particular drug so the way they make and design the look and size of a pill will vary based on their production of the pill. The designs can really vary greatly from maker to maker. Your brand drug might be a round green pill while the generic brand chosen might by pink and oval. Rest assured the difference here is only skin deep and that the medication is FDA approved to act the same and do the same task as the brand equivalent.

Name: This is generally the most confusing aspect, yet rather simple in nature. The name of your generic medication is simply the technical, pharmaceutical name given to the chemical structure of the medication. Brand names are generally made as easy to pronounce and easy to remember names that help both patients and doctors recognize and utilize that drug first. Try to think of a prescription anti-reflux medication and chances are you’ll think of Prilosec. If I tell you that Omperazole is the actual name of the drug, you may wonder how that is possibly the same thing. So again the brand name is generally made easy to remember and catchy while the chemical name behind it is always used as the generic name per FDA regulations.

Inactive Ingredients: Due to strict FDA regulations most prescription medications that are generics are required to be chemically identical to the brand counterpart. However changes in color, binding, and texture could be present due to different inactive ingredients. The differences of inactive ingredients are more pronounced in over the counter generic versions of popular brands. However, the key here is that the differences in ingredients are ONLY in the inactive ones. That is ingredients that make up the taste, texture, shape, color, or binding of the pill may sometimes be different but they have no affect on the active ingredients or the workings of the medication.

Price: Ah the big difference and most likely the reason why you have switched to generics. On average, most generic medications are up to 85% cheaper then brand medications. People often wonder how they can be so much less and yet be the same medication. People wrongly assume that somehow the generic medication is less effective or more dangerous then the brand. They couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, generics are cheaper for a simple reason. The initial company that created the medication (the brand that is) spent a lot of time and money on research and development, testing, FDA approvals, advertising, and making of the medication. All that costs a lot of money which is why these companies are given a patent on the medication for X number of years in which they can charge what they wish to recoup all those initial expenses without anyone taking the same medication formula and using it to compete.
Once the patent expires however, the drug formula is free game and since generic companies only need to exactly reproduce the drug to FDA approved sameness, they only have to worry about producing, packaging, and shipping the drug. It costs billions to research and development new drugs, making an already existing drug costs a fraction of that so savings are passed down to every level including you on generic medications. Nowadays some brand making companies have even resorted to making generics of their own brand medications to take advantage of the ‘home field advantage’ and compete with generic companies on the drug they created in the first place.

What about the people who say generics don’t work the same as the brand or have no effect? Chances are there is some psychological aspect to this and while it may not be ‘all in their head’, their belief that the generic does not work as well can actually lead to small physiological changes that make the drug seem less effective. Think of how when you get stressed out, you tend to feel physical changes due to those mental strains. Also a small percentage of people may be allergic to or sensitive to the inactive ingredients in a generic medication which could affect the effectiveness of the medication. But again the FDA oversees all medication production including generics and generics are tested before being allowed to reach the market. In fact in 2007 the FDA began to launch an educational campaign, distributing literature and fact sheets about how generics sold in pharmacies are approved by them and tested by them for the up-most quality. They go through the same FDA testing as brand medications as well as being compared to the brand to ensure consistency, accuracy, and effectiveness.

Generics have the potential to save a lot of individuals a lot of money and the bottom line here is that generics cost less not because they are made poorly or improperly, rather because all of the research and development and even the market for that medication has already been completed and established by the brand maker which leads to the same medication being packaged and sold for a far lower price. Talk to your pharmacist if you have any doubts or questions about generics and before you leave your pharmacy check your medications so that if you see a pill or name you do not recognize you can verify with the pharmacist that you are getting a high quality generic of your brand named prescriptions.