What Is the Difference Between Generic and Branded Medications?

Updated on November 11, 2016
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Sarah is a pharmacist living in Queensland, Australia. She enjoys writing articles with a health and medical focus.

What Are Generic Medications?

Generic medications are cheaper versions of branded medications that contain the same active ingredient. They work just as well as the branded versions. Drug regulatory agencies around the world (eg. the FDA) require that the drug strength is the same between generic and the original brand product. However, manufacturers must also demonstrate that their generic is of similar quality, potency and behaves in a similar fashion in the human body. This is termed bioequivalence. This is measured by comparing levels of the drug in the body after taking the generic product and after taking the branded product, and ensuring they are comparable. If you really want more detailed information on how this is determined, information is available from the FDA here (although this is quite technical; you’ve been warned!).

Pills and Pills!

Generic medications may look different from branded medications, but they contain the same active ingredients.
Generic medications may look different from branded medications, but they contain the same active ingredients. | Source

Why Do Generics Look Different?

Whilst the generic medications have the same active ingredient as the branded medication, the inactive ingredients—or the “fillers” that hold the tablet together and then help it break down once it is in the body—are often different between generic and branded products. These differences have no effect on the effectiveness of the generic medications. This is why the generic medication may be a different shape, size, colour or even taste to your branded medication.

Where Do Generics Come From?

Generic medications (and branded medications) are manufactured in factories all over the world. The factory must comply with regulatory quality standards of local governments if they want to be approved as a manufacturing site for generic medications. Local authorities regularly assess and audit manufacturing procedures in factories worldwide, to ensure they comply with local quality standards.

Not All Drugs Have a Generic

Generic medications become available only after the branded drug's patent has expired.
Generic medications become available only after the branded drug's patent has expired. | Source

Why Are Generics Cheaper Than Branded Medications?

Big pharmaceutical companies invest lots of money in clinical trials, and then in the marketing of their products. They have a limited amount of time where they are the only company in the market that can make that drug. When a drug’s patent expires generic manufacturers can then start manufacturing a generic version of that product. Generic companies don’t invest in research and marketing, and only manufacture products that have come off patent, providing cost savings to patients and governments around the world. If a generic version of a medication is not available, the price of the medication can remain as high as the pharmaceutical company wants to charge, because there is no competition. When generics become available, this pushes prices down, as if the original pharmaceutical company continued charging a high price for their drug then (theoretically) no one would buy the excessively priced branded drug. However, may people still buy higher priced branded drugs out of fear that generics are of inferior quality.

Are Generics Suitable to Use in All Cases?

Most medications can be substituted for a generic medication. Warfarin, a blood thinner, is a medication which cannot be substituted, as the two available brands (Marevan and Coumadin) have never been shown to be bioequivalent. Some people with conditions where small changes in drug concentrations may have significant effects (eg. epilepsy) may prefer to use the same brand, rather than swap between generics.


Are Generics Safe?

Generic medications have the same safety and side effect profile as the original brand. On rare occasions, people can sometimes experience an adverse reaction to a particular generic brand of medication due to one of the inactive ingredients in it. The list of ingredients in the medication can be found in the consumer medicines information leaflet, available from your pharmacist. If you think you have experienced an adverse reaction to a generic medication, report it to your doctor or pharmacist so they can report it to the relevant drug regulatory authority in your country.

What if My Doctor Advises Me Against Generics?

If you would like to use generic medications and you doctor has advised you not to, have a discussion with him or her to see if there is a genuine clinical rationale. It may be there is a only a particular medication where they don’t want you using a generic brand for a very specific reason. As the health consumer, it is always important to be aware of why these decisions are being made.

Finding the Active Ingredient in Your Medication

I'm Confused by the Different Names of Generic Brands. What Can I Do?

Making sure you take the right medication, and knowing which generic has been substituted for which brand, is extremely important. Knowing where to find the active ingredient of your medication on the dispensing label or on the box of medication will be helpful. You can find more information on how to find your active ingredient at the National Prescribing Service. Ask your pharmacist to write on their dispensing label which medication they have substituted. If you are still unsure as to which medication is which, speak with your pharmacist.

Do I Have to Use Generics?

It is always your choice whether or not to use generic medications. In some circumstances, there may be genuine supply issues when your pharmacist may not be able to get your preferred brand in stock, and a generic may be the only suitable option. If you want to try generic brands but are a bit hesitant, try substituting just one of your medications and see how you find the experience. If you have any problems, you can always go back to your original brand.

In conclusion, generic medications are of identical quality to branded medications, however they are much more affordable. It is very important that you know how to identify the active ingredient in your medication to know which generic has been substituted for what brand of medication. If you have any concerns about generics or medications, always speak to your pharmacist!

Generic or Brand

Which do you prefer, generic or branded medications?

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This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


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