Choosing Between Generic and Brand Name Pain Relievers


Marijke Vroomen Durning, RN

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Which Pain Medicine Is Right For You?

Not all pain medicines are the same. Use this Pain Investigator to find out which medicines are right for you.
Medication Over The Counter

Drugstore shelves are lined with over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers and each one may seem just like the next. There are some you’ve seen advertised on television or in magazines, but others carry the store name as their brand. What’s the difference between the national well-known brands and the ones offered by your local pharmacy chain? And why are the latter ones usually less expensive?

Drug Development

A drug that is under development has a generic name, usually based on what the medicine is for and what the main ingredient is. This results in groups of drugs with similar sounding names, such as a group of antibiotics that all end in “icillin,” like penicillin, amoxicillin, and ampicillin.

Generic names can be long and difficult to remember. To get an idea of how complicated the generic names can be, look at acetylsalicylic acid, which most of us know by the brand name Aspirin. Manufacturers develop brand names, picking one they hope people will remember easily and associate with that particular type of medicine. Other examples include, Tylenol, which is easier to remember than acetaminophen, and Advil for ibuprofen.

When a new drug, like a pain reliever, is developed and approved for sale by the FDA, the company that created it usually receives a patent for the drug to protect their rights to sell it. The patent includes both the medicinal ingredients (the active ingredients) and non-medicinal, or inactive, ingredients. The non-medicinal ingredients are what holds the drugs together (bindings and preservatives), and gives it color and taste. The manufacturers count on people remembering what their drugs look like. Their capsules may be red and white or their pills may be red and round. This is part of their trademark.

No other pharmaceutical company may make or sell this particular compound while the patent is in force, which is usually 20 years. Companies may also be granted an exclusive seller status for a particular drug, which could add a few months to a few years to their sole claim to selling the medicine.

Are generic pain relievers as good as brand name pain relievers?

Once a drug patent is no longer valid, any pharmaceutical company may manufacture and sell the compound, with FDA approval. The company may sell the drug under its generic name, or it may package and sell it under a different name, like a drugstore brand. The medicinal part of the medicine (the active ingredient) must be identical to the original brand name, both the ingredients and the amount of the ingredients. For example, if the brand name of pain reliever has acetaminophen and caffeine as their active ingredients, the equivalent generic must as well. As a result, the generic drugs work the same way as the original brand name drugs. They would also have the same side effects, if any. If ibuprofen makes you nauseous, it will whether you take it in the generic form or as Advil®.

Although the active ingredients in generic drugs must be identical to the brands, the non-medicinal ingredients may not be. The size, shape, color, and taste of the finished product are not the same as the original. Rarely, this can cause someone to have an allergic reaction to one type of medicine, but not another version. If you have severe food allergies, have celiac disease, or are lactose intolerant, speak with your pharmacist if you’re concerned about the ingredients in your medicine.

So are generic pain relievers as good as brand name pain relievers? Yes, they are.

Why are generic drugs cheaper?

The pharmaceutical company that first developed the drug had to bear the expense of developing the medicine and bringing it to market. It can take many years for this process. The patent is designed to ensure that the company is able to get a return on that investment. Companies that make the generic drugs after the patent has expired do not have the development and startup costs, nor the marketing costs, so their expenses are not as high. Therefore, they can charge less for their products.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Apr 5, 2016

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Medical References

  1. Brand-name vs. Generic Drugs: Is One Better Than the Other? Mayo Clinic.
  2. Frequently Asked Questions on Patents and Exclusivity. U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
  3. Miller D, Wilson K. What Patients Should Know About Generic Drugs: A Resource Guide for Pharmacists. Pharmacy Times. November 23, 2010.

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