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Generic Drugs vs. Brand: What You Need to Know

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By Frieda Wiley, PharmD, RPhFebruary 7, 2019

One of the most common questions I get as a pharmacist is, “Are generics really as good as brand medications?” Unfortunately, there is no cut-and-dried answer. It’s not really a question of whether a brand drug is better than a generic drug, but whether the specific version of the drug you are taking is giving your body what it needs.

Two of the most common concerns patients tend to have about generic medications:

Are generic versions as strong as brand?

Many people believe that the often-cheaper price of generic drugs means that are not getting the same drug dose as you would. The FDA requires manufacturers of generic drugs to prove that the active ingredient in the generic version will produce the same result as the brand-name drug.

Though generic drugs have the same active ingredient, the inactive ingredients often vary (e.g., binders, fillers, dyes, etc.). Changing even one of these components can have a major effect on how the drug behaves. Different inactive ingredients can alter how quickly the drug dissolves, is absorbed, cleared, and eliminated from the body. When you put all of this together in the form of a pill or capsule, the generic drug may have a similar effect as the brand version, but recreating the identical effect is nearly impossible. Equate this to baking a cake. Duncan Hines has a distinct flavor, and while “off-brand” competitors may still taste good, the flavor isn’t quite the same.  

Is it okay to switch from brand to generic?

While many patients can switch between brand and generic versions of drugs without any problems, there are certain conditions and situations where switching between brand and generics is not a good idea. Some people may be very sensitive to the different inactive ingredients, or they may have a health condition that requires a very specific dose to remain stable. Also, several companies may manufacture the same generic product, but the inactive ingredients they use may vary. Finally, not all generic versions of a brand medication are the same (since they are made by different manufacturers and may have different inactive ingredients), so some patients may respond differently to one generic version of a medication than another. 

Ultimately, the question is not whether brand or generic drugs are better, but which drug is the best choice for you. Because everyone is different, the solution can vary from person to person. Luckily, your doctor or pharmacist can help you find what works best for you.

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