Some pills have the milligrams of active substance engraved and often there is a lot of room to engrave more information, but I never saw a pill that had, for example, an abbreviation of the name of the substance or the trade name of the medicament engraved.

Is there some regulatory reason or another compelling argument why the manufacturers do not use the space to add information (like an abbreviation of the name, some code that can be looked up or letters for classfication between different types of drugs) that helps to distinguish different pills? Often there are not even the milligrams of active substance on the pill and the sizes used for different doses vary largely between different brands of generica.

I added the european-union tag for the assumptions in my question, but are interested in all answers just make sure to add what legislation the answer is about.

  • I suspect the reason is that if you tried to fit "nirmatrelvir / ritonavir" onto a tiny pill, it would be technically unfeasible to maintain legibility. The regulations the require pill imprinting are here. You might also find this article interesting.
    – Ian Campbell
    Jul 13, 2022 at 19:26
  • @IanCampbell Would you like to write an answer for the references to the requirements? For the thing about long names, would it already be helpful to have some abbreviations or codes and most pills I've seen in the EU don't seem to have obvious classifications on the pill itself.
    – allo
    Jul 13, 2022 at 20:54

2 Answers 2


Every government is going to have their own regulations for this sort of thing.

For the US, the law states:

Unless exempted under § 206.7, no drug product in solid oral dosage form may be introduced or delivered for introduction into interstate commerce unless it is clearly marked or imprinted with a code imprint that, in conjunction with the product's size, shape, and color, permits the unique identification of the drug product and the manufacturer or distributor of the product. Identification of the drug product requires identification of its active ingredients and its dosage strength. Inclusion of a letter or number in the imprint, while not required, is encouraged as a more effective means of identification than a symbol or logo by itself. Homeopathic drug products are required only to bear an imprint that identifies the manufacturer and their homeopathic nature.

In summary, you need to be able to ID a pill based on it's size, shape, color, and label. Anything else may be allowed but is not required.

I think if you printed a long name there would be serious limits on the possible font size, and this would make the pill difficult to identify. An abbreviation could easily be confused for a different drug; much safer for someone to have a pill that they can't identify and know they can't identify, than to have a pill that they think they've identified correctly but are actually wrong because they misunderstood the abbreviation intended.

Note also the requirement to identify "manufacturer or distributor of the product" - while you might think it would be more convenient for all manufacturers to have the same appearance for the same drug, that's not necessarily good from a regulatory perspective, where it may be very important that a pill can be identified as coming from a particular source if it is found to be contaminated or otherwise not conforming to specifications.

  • This may be country dependend, I added an EU tag to the question, but are still open to hear about different legislations. Here there are many pills that look very similar. And using more engraved letters, color, and shapes would make it way easier not to confuse them. Maybe even requiring a specific drug to have the same shape for different manufacturers of generica, but in practice the same medicament looks completely different when it's a different brand.
    – allo
    Jul 13, 2022 at 20:41
  • 1
    @allo I don't know what the EU rules are, though I wouldn't be surprised if they are fairly similar to the US. In any event, it's rare that a consumer should actually need to identify particular pills. Keep them in the original container which provides a lot of other important information. If you have loose pills, they should probably be discarded (check for drug take-back opportunities rather than disposing in the trash or sink; pharmacies/chemists may take them, or medical facilities or local government).
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 13, 2022 at 20:45
  • I agree, but it seems to me like a simple measure that may come in handy in some situations and won't hurt in others. So I was thinking about why seemingly no company is doing this.
    – allo
    Jul 13, 2022 at 20:49
  • @allo What about the issues than Ian and I mentioned about not being able to fit enough text in a legible font? or the problem I raise about users being overconfident they can ID a pill correctly?
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 13, 2022 at 20:56
  • 1
    I take a half-dose of Eliquis. The tablets are tiny, and I can see they have an inscription on each side, but it's impossible for me to read without magnification even in bright light (I have 20/20 vision). I had to take a photo with my mobile phone and then zoom in to see what it says. On one side is a 3-digit number and on the other is the dosage. There's no way you could put anything more that consumers could read on that pill. Even the name Eliquis wouldn't fit. Nevertheless, the pill identifier on drugs.com identifies it precisely based on shape, color, and inscriptions.
    – Carey Gregory
    Jul 14, 2022 at 3:41

A few answers compiled from the comments, which are no own answers yet:



  • Some pills have an imprint that actually makes them identifiable but it is too small for reading without magnification
  • Indentions on a pill make it more likely to crumble.
  • Some pills have numbers that together with the shape yield good search results, e.g., on Google.
  • One usually wouldn't take a lost and found pill anymore.
  • There just is not enough place for, e.g., a full name. This would not prevent using a short unique code, though.

From the comments it also looks a bit like pills in American pill bottles may have more often have an imprint than ones in Blister packages which are more common in Europe which usually contain the name on the foil.

  • 2
    Note that the first link, from Ian's comment, is exactly the same as the link in my answer. It was also the first result on a google search, so possibly not too coincidental that we both found the same source :)
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 20, 2022 at 15:35

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