What are Generic Drugs?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Generic drugs are drugs with active ingredients identical to those of patented brand-name drugs. Drug companies are allowed to manufacture generic drugs after patents expire, in regions where no patent has been registered, and in the event that a patent can be proven invalid. As a general rule, generic drugs are much less expensive than brand-name drugs, and consumers are often encouraged to consider using generic drugs for the savings. Some insurance companies refuse to cover brand name drugs if generic versions are available, under the logic that the drugs are identical, and the insurer wants to save money.

Generic drugs contain the same active ingredients as their brand-name counterparts.
Generic drugs contain the same active ingredients as their brand-name counterparts.

As a general rule, in order to be accepted by a regulatory agency, a generic drug must have the same active ingredients, dosage, and indications as the brand-name versions. The drug is considered “bioequivalent,” meaning that it is fundamentally the same as a brand-name version. Generic labeling and advertisements are often very similar to those of brand-name drugs, building on customer loyalty, although advertisements which stray too close to the original may be grounds for a lawsuit.

Generic drugs have the same active ingredients as patented name-brand drugs, but can be manufactured only after patents expire.
Generic drugs have the same active ingredients as patented name-brand drugs, but can be manufactured only after patents expire.

Generics are cheaper than brand-name drugs because the generic manufacturer does not need to go through the costly and lengthy process of drug research, discovery, and testing. The drug does not need to be tested before being released on the open market, as it is presumed identical, and competition also tends to be fierce, so producers lower costs so that they can compete with each other. As a result, generic drugs are often available for a fraction of the cost of brand-name products, many of which are sold at a high cost under the logic that the drug developer must recoup its costs.

In fact, generic drugs are not always identical to their brand-name counterparts. The inactive ingredients may vary, and sometimes subtleties in the formulation cause the drug to act slightly differently. Some patient advocates argue that patients and doctors should choose the drug which works best for the patient, rather than the cheapest drug, and that insurance policies which force patients to buy generic drugs restrict freedom of choice.

Drug companies tend to encourage this view, plastering medical magazines with advertisements for their products to encourage doctors to write the brand-name, rather than the generic, on the prescription pad. The differences between brand-name and generic drugs probably lie somewhere in the middle: many generic drugs are indeed identical and perfectly safe to use as replacements for brand-name versions, while in other cases, there may be legitimate reasons for specifically requesting a brand-name drug.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Oceana - I think that generic pharmaceutical companies probably get their information from the FDA. I have heard that they have to submit a request to the FDA to be able to make the drugs, so I would imagine a copy of the “recipe” is on file with this agency.

I have noticed that the packaging and names of generic drugs are very similar to the originals. Also, they are placed right next to each other on pharmacy shelves, so it is pretty easy to find the cheaper generic version of what you need.

I take an antihistamine that comes in a blue bottle, and it is the same shade of blue found on the package of the more expensive brand name version. My antihistamine is labeled “allergy tablets,” and even though that isn’t as creative as many examples of generic drug names, it clearly lets me know what I’m buying.


I wonder how generic drug manufacturing companies get accurate information about how much of the active ingredients to use and in what proportion. Do drug companies have to disclose this information to some agency, and does it then become available to the public?

Perhaps generic drug companies just read the ingredients on the label and experiment until they get the proportions right, but I doubt this is the case. It seems to me that this would have to be an exact science, so the information must be available from somewhere.


@orangey03 - Tell me about it! My dad’s brand name medication for shingles was going to cost him $400 for one tube! He called his doctor, who talked to the pharmacist and allowed for the generic version instead, and my dad only had to pay $20.

How can a drug company expect anyone to pay $400 to get rid of shingles? Granted, it’s a very painful condition, but most people do not have that kind of money to spend. I pay $400 a month in rent, and if I had to choose between getting evicted or dealing with shingles pain, I guess I’d have to take the pain.


My doctor always writes me a prescription for the generic equivalent of a brand name drug. She has continually tried to help me save money, and I really appreciate this.

The price difference between brand name and generic drugs can be an insane amount at times. My doctor knows that I don’t make a whole lot of money at my job, and my insurance is not the best in the world.

I am so glad that generic drugs exist for most of my prescriptions. I take everything from generic birth control to generic allergy medication, and the drugs work as they are supposed to for me.

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