Why do medications have brand names and generic names?

Many medications have two names because more than one version of the medicine is available. 

  • The brand name is the name given to a medicine by the pharmaceutical company that makes it. This is also called the "proprietary name". 
  • The generic or scientific name is the term given to the active ingredient in the medicine that is decided by an expert committee and is understood internationally. This is also called the "non-proprietary name".

For example, sildenafil is the generic name of a medicine used to treat erectile dysfunction (the inability to get an erection). Pfizer, the company that makes sildenafil, sells it under the brand name Viagra.

Brand names for medications

Pharmaceutical companies take out a patent (exclusive rights) for each new medicine they discover. This patent lasts for up to 20 years, during which time the medicine is studied in clinical trials and then approved for sale by expert committees, such as the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). When the medicine becomes available, only the pharmaceutical company that discovered it is able to sell it using their brand name, until the patent runs out.

Generic names for medications

After the patent runs out, other companies can produce their own version of the medicine. For example, ibuprofen is the generic name of a medicine used to treat pain. Some companies will sell ibuprofen as branded versions, such as Nurofen and Hedex. Other manufacturers, such as Boots or Tesco, sell it under the generic name "ibuprofen".

Medicines sold under their generic name are usually cheaper, because the research and development costs are lower. However, they contain the same active ingredient as the equivalent branded medicines.

Generic medicines also go through detailed safety and quality requirements. Read more information about how medicines are licensed and safety and regulation.

Being prescribed generic medications

You may be prescribed a generic medicine instead of a branded medicine because:

  • generic medicines are as effective as branded versions
  • generic medicines can cost up to 80% less than branded versions

Prescribing generic medicines frees up NHS funds for other uses. 

Generic medicines that are different

In rare cases, branded medicines are prescribed because they are the most suitable product. If this happens to you, it’s important to stay on the branded medicine, rather than changing to a generic medicine.

For example, the body absorbs some medicines used to treat epilepsy in slightly different ways. This has a big effect on how the medicine works. In these cases, you should continue to use the brand you've been prescribed. Your GP will tell you if this is the right treatment for your particular condition.

Read more about medicine names for examples of when branded medicines can be prescribed instead of generic medicines.

Read the answers to more questions about medicines.

Further information:


Side effects: the Yellow Card Scheme

All medicines can cause side effects. Some may not yet be known, so that's why it's important for people to report to the Yellow Card Scheme.

Media last reviewed: 22/06/2015

Next review due: 22/06/2017

Page last reviewed: 13/12/2014

Next review due: 12/12/2016