Become more familiar with the medicine you take... Learn the generic name


Medicines all have one generic name and perhaps one or more brand names. The brand name is chosen by the drug company. The generic name is assigned by an official body, the United States Adopted Names (USAN) Council. You probably know, for example, that Advil and Motrin are brand names for the generic medicine ibuprofen. Knowing that Advil, Motrin, and ibuprofen are all the same medicine alerts you to an important risk—that taking these medicines together could add up to an overdose.

But there’s another problem. Sometimes brand-name medicines that are used for entirely different reasons may actually be the same generic medicine. For example, one medicine is called Prozac when it’s used to treat depression, and Sarafem when it’s used to reduce premenstrual symptoms. In this case, the drug company felt some women may be uncomfortable taking a medicine called Prozac if it wasn’t being used to treat depression. But Prozac and Sarafem are the same medicine. Its generic name is fluoxetine, which will always be the same no matter what condition the medicine is being used to treat. So, a woman taking Prozac for depression should not assume that it’s safe to take Sarafem for premenstrual symptoms, too. 

Sometimes, having different names for the same medicine has caused mistakes. One man accidentally took too much bupropion that sent him to the hospital with a seizure. This medicine has one brand name (Wellbutrin) when it’s used for depression, and another (Zyban) when it’s used to help people quit smoking. The man had been taking Wellbutrin for years to treat depression. Six weeks before the seizure, his doctor gave him a new set of prescriptions for all his medicines. This time, the doctor prescribed the depression medicine by its generic name, bupropion. Not knowing they were the same medicine, the man mistakenly took both his new prescription for bupropion and his old prescription for Wellbutrin. To make matters worse, the man had recently attended a “stop smoking” program, where another doctor gave him a prescription for Zyban. So, right before his seizure, the man was taking Zyban, Wellbutrin, and bupropion —all the same medicine! Luckily, a medical student in the hospital discovered the problem when he looked up the generic names of all the medicines the man was taking. After a day in the hospital, the man was able to go home.

The best way to prevent these errors is to know your medicine’s brand and generic names. Remember, the generic name will always be the same, even if your medicine has several different brand names. Keep a record of all the medicines you take. On a form, list the generic name (and the brand name, if it is not a generic medicine) of all your medicines, why you take them, how much you take, and how often you take them. Give that form to your doctors every time you visit them. Also, while you may need to visit several different doctors, always try to fill your prescriptions at the same pharmacy. This way, your pharmacist will be able to tell if one of your doctors prescribed a medicine you’re already taking.

Created on October 7, 2015

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