Brand vs. Generic Drugs: What is the Difference?


Walk down the aisle of any grocery store, and you are more than likely to find a generic version of many brand-name products, from cleaning products and laundry detergent to spaghetti sauce and potato chips. 

When it comes to medication, consumers will also find the same options: generic vs. brand names. But what exactly is the difference between brand-name pharmaceutical medications and their generic alternatives? How do you know which one to pick?

Navigating the world of generic vs brand-name prescription medications can be very confusing, so we put together this guide to help you better understand their differences, as well as potentially determine which may be the better option for you. However, we always recommend consulting with your physician for any medical advice, including generic and brand-name drugs, as well as reviewing your healthcare insurance plans to find out more information about your particular coverage for prescription medications.

Generic Medications 

Whether prescribed or over the counter, generic drugs are available for many medications. 

What are Generic Drugs?

Generic medications are a chemical copy of their brand-name counterparts with the same active ingredients, but are typically priced lower. For example, the FDA states that generic drugs cost on average, 85% less than the brand-name versions.  

What Similarities Do Generic and Brand-Name Drugs Have?

Generic drugs and their brand-name versions are in many ways very similar to each other, from their active ingredients that produce the effects they yield, to the dosage needed to feel those effects. When it comes to generic medications, they must have the following similarities to the brand-name version:

  • Active ingredients
  • Dosage 
  • Benefits 
  • Strength
  • Safety
  • Quality

When Can a Medication Have a Generic Version?

The FDA grants patent and exclusivity protection to drug manufacturers to profit from their innovation and medical research for several years. During this time, generic versions of the medication aren’t allowed to compete with the brand.

Patents are good for 20 years, and once the patent expires, generics can enter the market through a shortened FDA approval process. Generic medications must meet the same quality, safety, and effectiveness standards as brand-name drugs.

Are Generic Medications Safe to Take?

Yes! Since generic drugs must meet the same quality standards for approval by the FDA as brand-name medications, they are considered just as safe to take.

The FDA’s Office of Generic Drugs manages a rigorous review to ensure every generic medication meets these standards. They also conduct inspections of the drug production plants and monitor drug safety after the generic medicine has been both approved and brought to market.

Medications, both generic and brand-name, can be recalled by the FDA after going on the market for safety, mislabeling, contamination, and variations in strength/potency. With that being said, the FDA will increase checks to prevent this from happening if possible. 

When is a Generic Drug the Better Choice?

As we stated above, generic medications usually cost a lot less. This is one of the main reasons that the generic version is many times the better choice for most consumers. If you don’t have prescription medication insurance, generics are usually the way to go. 

The lower cost of generic drugs also helps improve health outcomes because people are more likely to take their prescribed medications consistently when they are more affordable. 

What is a Brand-Name Medication?

A drug company sells a brand-name medication under a specific name or trademark and is protected by a patent. Brand-name drugs are available over the counter or prescribed by a doctor

When is a Brand-Name Drug the Better Choice?

In some cases, the brand-name version may be the only option because there is no generic version available.

You most likely will need to use the brand-name version if:

  • You don’t respond to the generic medication nor are you able to experience the desired effects of the drug.
  • Your symptoms for the condition you are treating do not improve or get worse.
  • You experience an allergic reaction or side effect from an inactive ingredient.
  • The Narrow Therapeutic Index (NTI) is smaller between the benefits and harmful effects of the drug. (Your doctor can help determine a drug’s NTI.)

Why Do Brand-Name Drugs Cost More?

It’s no secret that brand-name drugs cost a lot more than their generic versions. As stated above, a brand-name medication is a newly discovered drug that has been developed through medical research and clinical trials. These new drugs must go through years of testing on animals and humans to prove they are safe and effective before the FDA will approve them for use. 

Creating a new drug takes a lot of time and money. That’s why drug manufacturers get patent and exclusivity protection from competition until their patent expires. During that time, the manufacturer of the brand can set any price for that medication to their profit.

What is the Difference Between Generic and Brand Drugs?

Even though generic drugs must have most of the same characteristics as a brand-name version, there are a few differences between them. These differences include the physical appearance of the medication (brand-names have trademark laws) and slightly different inactive ingredients (fillers, flavors, binders, etc.) While these don’t affect how the medicine works, some people may have reactions to inactive ingredients. 

Who Decides If I Get A Brand-Name or Generic Version When I Get a Prescription Filled?

Many states have laws requiring pharmacists to switch to a generic version of a drug when available. It’s also important to know that many insurance companies will only cover the cost of a generic version. We recommend checking with your insurance as most companies also have drug formularies or lists of approved medications.

What Should I Know About Switching to Generic Drugs?

When you make the switch to a generic version of a medication, you should keep in mind that:

  • Pharmacy staff are required to notify you about changing to the generic version in most states.
  • Your physician may write “do not substitute,” “dispense as written,” or “brand medically necessary” on your prescription to avoid generic switching.
  • You can refuse a generic substitution, but your insurance may not cover the brand- name.

The Bottom Line

There are a lot of similarities and a few differences between the brand-name and generic versions of prescription drugs. But for a lot of U.S. consumers, it comes down to costs and savings. 

Are you wondering if your prescription medication has a generic version available? Ask your pharmacist or doctor! You can also use this list to find out which drugs have a generic version and which don’t. 

And remember in regard to any medical advice, always consult with your doctor first to find the best options to meet your needs. 

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