This is what you need to know about pharmacy brands and the difference between colds and flu

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Is there a reason as to why they cost less than the generic version? We’ve all been there: when your pharmacist asks whether you’d like the brand name or if you’re happy with a generic, you’ve got just a split second to make up your mind.

For most of us, the only thing that really makes the decision is the cost of the drug – but are there other things to consider? And should we be less blasé about the choice?

As a pharmacist with over 10 years of experience, I have experienced all of these questions from my customers and want to help take the guesswork out of the decisions. These are the most common questions I’m asked.

Are generic medicines the same as the brand-name versions?

In short, yes – but there are a few caveats. They will contain the same active ingredients (the bit that makes it effective). The reason there are options is that when a new medicine is developed, it is covered by a patent. During the years the patent is active, the company that developed it can set a cost for that drug, which helps them recuperate the costs of developing the drug or acquiring the rights to put it on the market.

After the patent expires, however, the active ingredient can be used by other companies and when these medicines come to market, they are known as ‘generic’ versions. Companies don’t have costs to recover here, which is why they’re often cheaper in comparison to the brand names.

Whilst they’ll contain the same active ingredient, they can still differ in size, shape, colour, packaging and ‘inactive ingredients’ (binding materials, preservatives, flavourings) that don’t contribute to how the medicine works.

Can they be trusted?

Again, the answer here is yes. Since they contain the same dose of the same active ingredient, they will work in the same way. To be sold in Australia, all generic medicines must meet the same standards of effectiveness, quality, and safety that the original was tested to.

Can I switch back and forth between generic and brand name?

Most people can quite safely switch between a brand name and a generic with no problems and no difference in the effectiveness of the drug. There is a chance that a new version of a drug might reach a different level of blood concentration, but TGA regulations mean the generic needs to get you within 10 per cent of the brand to be approved, so this shouldn’t be a problem, and you probably won’t even notice any difference.

Is there any instance when I shouldn’t?

If you have allergies, you should be conscious that switching might mean you get a drug which has different inactive ingredients to the one you’ve been prescribed. This is relevant in, for example, birth control pills, which contain lactose.

There might also be other clinical benefits, which means your doctor wishes you to take a specific brand.

If this is the case, your doctor will have ticked the ‘no substitutions’ box on your prescription. If you have any reservations or questions, however, you should always ask either your doctor or pharmacist – that’s what they’re there for.

Why don’t doctors always use the generic name when it’s available?

This is much more a practical reason than a medical one. Companies that have held a patent on their medicine will have been marketing their branded medication to doctors for much longer, and probably much harder – the result of which means they’re easier to remember. They also tend to have less complex names – take aspirin, instead of acetylsalicylic acid, for example.

The answer is simply that GPs often don’t have the time to trawl through medications looking for a generic name, so they’ll just prescribe the name they know.

Feras Karem is a Pharmacist and Managing Director of Pharmacy 4 Less.

For more on this topic, these are the 5 questions pharmacists always get asked – and how to resolve each. Plus, these are the 5 products you should get from the chemist as soon as you get a cold.

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