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Medicines and brand names, explained

It’s important to remember that most medicines have two different names – an active ingredient and a brand name. There may also be more than one brand of the same medicine. Read more to find out how to identify the differences in your medicines.

5 min read

Why does the same medicine have different brand names?

Medicine names can be confusing, because each medicine has at least two names and sometimes more.

Active ingredient

The active ingredient name is the name of the chemical in the medicine that makes it work. These active ingredient names are scientific and often quite difficult to remember and pronounce.

Brand name

A pharmaceutical company can give its medicine another, more memorable, name under which the medicine is sold. This is the brand name.

Original brand name

The original brand is the first patented brand of a medicine. When a pharmaceutical company develops a new active ingredient, it is granted a patent for a period of time during which no other company can manufacture and sell a medicine containing the same active ingredient.

This means that for many years, only one brand of medicine is available, and the original company has the opportunity to recoup its investment in researching and developing the new medicine.

Generic brand names

Once a patent expires, other companies can develop their own version of the medicine. These are known as generic brands. Their active ingredient name always remains the same, but they are marketed under different brand names.

Due to trade mark regulations, the packaging and sometimes the medicines themselves are made to look different from each other.

What difference will using alternative brands make?

As long as the active ingredient and strength of the medicine is the same, for most people there’s no difference between brands. What matters is the active ingredient. 

So if you’re offered an alternative brand you can be confident that it will work the same – either way, it’s your choice.

For some people with allergies or intolerances, it's important to find out more about the other ingredients, or inactive ingredients in your medicines. 

There may also be other situations that influence your decision to switch brands.

About generic medicine brands

Many medicines with the same active ingredient are available under several different brands: an original brand and sometimes several generic brands. They work in the same way but have different brand names and packaging. 

When your pharmacist offers you an alternative brand, it will always have the same active ingredient as the one on your prescription or in the medicine you usually take. The active ingredient is the chemical in the medicine that makes it work.

So if you are offered a choice, either way it’s okay.

Five questions to ask when you are offered an alternative brand of medicine

  1. Is it okay for me to choose a different brand of my medicine?
  2. What are the benefits and disadvantages for me if I use a different brand?
  3. Is there a difference in cost?
  4. Which of my usual medicines does this replace?
  5. What is the active ingredient in my medicine?

Generic medicines must be just as good

All medicines sold in Australia must be approved by the government through the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).

The TGA requires generic brands of a medicine to meet the same strict standards of quality, safety and effectiveness as the original brand (the first patented brand of that medicine). This applies to both prescription and over-the-counter medicines.

You will only be offered a generic brand of a prescription medicine if it is proven to be bioequivalent to the original brand. 

This means that the active ingredient is identical and the medicine is manufactured to have the same effect in the body – so you can be confident that the generic brand will have the same potential health benefits as your usual brand, or the brand on your prescription. The potential side effects will also be the same.

Sometimes you won’t be offered an alternative brand:

  • For a small number of medicines (such as warfarin), different brands may contain the same active ingredient but not be bioequivalent. In these situations you should stick with your usual brand and your pharmacist will provide you with the brand that has been prescribed. This sometimes arises from differences in the manufacturing process and means that the active ingredient might not have exactly the same effect in the body.
  • Some people may need to avoid an alternative brand because of other ingredients (known as excipients) in the medicine, such as lactose, gluten, preservatives, sweeteners and dyes. You can find more information about the inactive ingredients in your medicines by reading the consumer medicines information (CMI) leaflets for the medicines. Check with your pharmacist if you are unsure.
  • People with certain conditions may be advised to stick with their original prescribed brand.

If your doctor ticks the ‘Brand substitution not permitted’ box on the prescription, the pharmacist will know not to offer you an alternative brand. You can also request your usual brand if you don’t want to change.

Choosing between generic and original brands

A generic brand of medicine may be cheaper than another brand. If the pharmacist doesn’t have your usual brand in stock, you can use a generic brand and get the usual benefit of your medicine.

In some cases you may choose not to switch brands.

  • You may not want to change brands to avoid confusion. It’s best not to keep switching brands, especially if you take several different medicines.
  • For a few people, there may be risks in changing brands, such as having an allergy or intolerance to an inactive ingredient in a different brand of medicine. Inactive ingredients can include fillers, binders or coatings used in the manufacturing process.
  • People with certain conditions may be advised to stick with their original prescribed brand. Your doctor will explain if this is the case.

Remember, the choice between a generic medicine and the original brand is yours.

Be medicinewise about your choices by discussing your options with your doctor or pharmacist.

Keep good records

Recording all the names of your medicines on a medicines list can help you, your doctor and your pharmacist keep track of your medicines and choice of brands.

It’s also a handy way to remember the active ingredient name in your medicines. If someone helps care for you, you might find it useful to keep a copy for them.

You can keep a paper medicines list, or download the free MedicineWise app for your smartphone.

Find out more about keeping a medicines list or about the MedicineWise app.

Other ingredients in medicines

As well as the active ingredient, medicines contain other ingredients known as inactive ingredients or excipients.

The active ingredient is the important thing as this is the chemical that makes the medicine work, but the inactive ingredients are needed in the manufacturing process for a variety of reasons. An inactive ingredient may be included:

  • as a filler if the quantity of active ingredient is very small
  • to stabilise the active ingredient so that it stays effective for longer
  • to help the active ingredient be absorbed more effectively by the body
  • as a binder to hold all the ingredients together
  • to sweeten or flavour the medicine to make it easier to take
  • to coat tablets or capsules so that they’re easier to swallow.

For most people, the inactive ingredients won’t matter. However, if you have particular allergies or intolerances, or choose to avoid certain substances for cultural or medical reasons, you may need to know what excipients are in your medicine. Ingredients such as lactose, gluten, sugar, preservatives and dyes might matter to you. If so, be medicinewise and check with your pharmacist or doctor before you choose a different medicine brand.

Finding information about medicine ingredients

You can find a list of excipients under ‘inactive ingredients’ within the consumer medicine information (CMI) for prescription and pharmacist-only medicines. The CMI is sometimes included as a small leaflet inside the medicine’s packaging, or may be provided as a printout by your pharmacist or doctor. You can also search for the CMI of any medicine using the NPS Medicine Finder.

5 min read