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When talking about drugs, three names often get discussed: brand name, generic name, and active ingredient. What are the differences between these names and what do they tell you about the drug.

This question focuses on the generic name of a drug and does not mention the brand name and the active ingredients.

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Brand Name

When a company first develops a drug and releases it on the market, they will have a patent for the drug (usually lasting 20 years). A good example for a brand name is Aspirin from the German company Bayer.

The brand name is somewhat the equivalent of a car name, as an example Renault Megan.

Generic Name

After a patent expires, other companies can produce the same drug, under a different name.

A generic drug is a medication that has exactly the same active ingredient as the brand-name drug and yields the same therapeutic effect. It is the same in dosing, safety, strength, quality, the way it works, the way it is taken, and the way it should be used. Generic drugs do not need to contain the same inactive ingredients as the brand name product.

However, a generic drug can only be marketed after the brand-name drug's patent has expired, which may take up to 20 years after the patent holder’s drug is first filed with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Generic drugs are usually much less expensive than brand name drugs once they reach the market.
Source: Drugs.com

In the case of Aspirin, Aspirin is still a registered trademark, but aspirin isn't. But because the drug is so famous, it is retailed by different companies under the name aspirin (lower-case a), which is not trademarked.

Active Ingredient

The active ingredient of Aspirin is acetylsalicylic acid. This is what a doctor should prescribe (but because aspirin is so famous, most people use that name instead of acetylsalicylic acid), and this is of interest to other doctors, pharmacists etc.. It basically tells you what the drug does, adhering to the nomenclature explained in this answer.

I've also encountered quite a few doctors, nurses or EMT's who said that there is sometimes confusion because brand names are so popular people refer to the active ingredient by the brand name (see acetylsalicylic acid).

  • So the generic name tells you nothing about the drug/active ingredient. – StrongBad Oct 11 '17 at 17:15
  • Yes, it doesn't. The generic name is somewhat similar to the brand name, just that it isn't a registered trademark anymore. – Narusan Oct 11 '17 at 18:35
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To clarify simply:

Brand name - Whatever the name the company come up with for their medical products e.g. Viagra

Generic name = Active Ingredient - are the same - they both refer to what the medicine common name is Viagra = Sildenafil Citrate.

Generic medicine are what they referred to medicines made by other manufacturer that copied the original company who invented the drug after the drug have come off patent. So to save money - go for the generic medicine but sometime they may not work as well as the original medicine, because they try to cut cost - so the taste, the packaging tends to be lower quality. But they should both deliver the same active ingredient of medicine, just all the other ingredients that help make the drug will be different.

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    What do you mean by "sometime they may not work as well as the original medicine" in your answer? From what I understand of pharmacology, that is exceedingly rare... – DoctorWhom Oct 12 '17 at 3:17

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