What’s The Difference Between A Generic And Name Brand Drug?

We’ve all been there, staring blankly at the shelves full of painkillers and wondering which one to choose from. There’s numerous generic looking boxes labelled paracetamol and branded boxes like Panadol or Nurofen beside them. What’s the difference? This article is going to explore the differences between a generic box of paracetamol and the branded equivalent.

Is There A Difference Between Generic And Branded Drugs?

Short answer: No. “Branded versions of the treatment are no different to the non-branded generic medicine”, Chief Pharmacist of Oxford Online Pharmacy, Stuart Gale, explains, “The active ingredient is identical in both versions.”

The U.S. Federal Drug Authority (FDA) describes the active ingredient as the ingredient in the drug that facilitates the treatment or prevention of the illness, or alters the needed bodily function of humans or animals. As an example, paracetamol is the active ingredient in both generic paracetamol, and the branded equivalents. 

Global regulatory authorities like the FDA in the US, and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency in the UK, ensure that all generic and branded drugs have the same active ingredient, which means the function of the drug is the same.

What Are Generic Drugs?

Generic drugs are those produced once the patent of the branded drug has expired. When a drug is originally created, the pharmaceutical company will file for a patent of that drug, and market and sell that drug under the branded name. The patent will prevent other medical bodies from replicating that drug for a certain length of time.

Once the patent has expired, other companies can start to market the generic version of that drug. However, only the originator of that drug can sell it under the original brand name they gave it. Examples of brand names and generics include:

  • Tylenol is the brand name and paracetamol (also known as acetaminophen) is the generic
  • Prozac is the brand name and fluoxetine is the generic

One generic drug may have more than one brand name – paracetamol is branded as Tylenol or Panadol, for example. Both companies can market in this way, but cannot sell under the brand name of the competitor. In order for a new company to brand the generic drug, they will have to file some additional documentation and submit it to their regulatory authority in order to sell it in that country.

Will Every Branded Drug Have A Generic Counterpart?

Not every branded drug will have a generic counterpart. The branded drug comes first, as it is the pharmaceutical company who develops the drug that will traditionally launch the product. As they will file a patent preventing other companies creating a generic, a generic may not exist for decades, if at all. Each drug is in a different stage of its lifecycle. 

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Are There Any Differences At All Between Generic And Branded Drugs?

While the function and treatment of the drug will be the same between generic and branded drugs, there may be some subtle differences between the two drug types. Some of the differences may include:


Branded drugs are more expensive than their generic counterparts. This is often because the company that launched the branded drug needs to recoup the development cost of the drug. Also, brand names are often launched under the name of the company, meaning that they have certain brand recognition and can charge more money for their product.

Non-Active Ingredients

All ingredients but the active ingredients can be altered in a generic, as regulatory authorities only require the active ingredient to be the same between generic and branded drugs. Provided that the inactive ingredients in a generic still meet the standards of the regulatory authority, they can be included.

Drug Form

A generic drug might have a very different appearance to its branded counterpart. It may have a different shape, colour, texture, size and taste to the branded drug. In the US, the branded drug and the generic drug should not look the same. There may be a completely different way of administering the drug, e.g. in liquid, pill or inhaler form.


The manufacturer of a generic drug is usually different from a branded one. The manufacturer listed will usually be the one that your pharmacy orders from and will differ from location to location.

Which Drug Type Will My Doctor Prescribe?

Doctors are often trained by the generic drug name, and prescribing the generic drug can be more cost-effective in the long run for patients and medical bodies. There are a few scenarios where brand name prescribing may be preferable, including:

Drugs With A Narrow Therapeutic Index

A narrow therapeutic index refers to drugs which require an exact dosage to prevent a serious medical failure. Examples include treatments for epilepsy, where specific doses are needed for each patient. 

Patient Familiarity 

If a patient is familiar with a particular way of taking the drug, e.g. an inhaler, the doctor may prescribe the same administration form. This can help the patient feel comfortable taking the drug and improve patient compliance. 

When They Have Different Release Times

Some drugs have a modified-release time. This is when the drug is ingested but the effects work after a certain period of time, for a certain length of time. There will be a difference between some branded and generic release times, and if the difference is too great, the doctor may prescribe the branded version of the drug. 


The core function and treatment of a generic and brand name drug will remain the same, as it will contain the same active ingredient. However, there may be subtle differences in the appearance, administration form and cost of the drug. For over the counter purchases like paracetamol, the generics are cheaper and very similar to their brand name counterparts. However, for certain cases like epilepsy treatment or specific patient needs, the brand name may be prescribed to help the patient.

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