June 4th, 2009
11:14 AM ET

Are generic drugs equal to brand name products?

As a new feature of CNNhealth.com, our team of expert doctors will answer readers' questions. Here's a question for Dr. Gupta.

From Don, New Berlin, New York

“I am curious to know the differences between generic and name-brand drugs. What makes the prices so different? Is there a difference in quality?”


Hey Don! As you accurately observed, the main difference between generics and brand-name drugs is the cost. Generics cost less than a third as much as their brand-name counterparts. Why the price difference? Because makers of brand-name drugs want to "brand" their identity - and the way to do that is through advertising. These companies pay large amounts of money to catch your attention, and that money factors into the cost you pay.

As far as how they compare in quality, here's the scoop: The active ingredients - the things that make the brand-name drug work in the first place - are also found in the generic version. What might be different are the generic drug's inactive ingredients - things that might affect how quickly a drug is released, the size and shape of the pill - there could be variation there.

There has been some anecdotal evidence suggesting some types of drugs may react significantly differently between the generic and brand. However, according to the FDA, they all undergo and meet the same strict regulations for safety and efficacy. Still, some docs may not want to risk even the small chance that a generic will react differently from the brand, so you need to have that conversation with your doctor to figure out what’s best for you.

If you do switch to a generic and notice you’re reacting differently, there are things you can do. You can try a different generic; there are often several versions of the same generic drug, like a two-tablet version of the same medication, instead of one. You can also have your doctor write "Dispense as Written" or "Do Not Substitute" on your prescription so that you can stay on the brand name, but you may end up paying more.

But remember, with most generics, you’re probably not going to see any difference at all, except you might find a bit more cash in your wallet.

soundoff (67 Responses)
  1. Maura Wilson

    You said <> I find this to be unacceptable with regard to thyroid medication for patients who no longer have their thyroid, for example thyroid cancer patients. It takes 6-8 weeks for a change in levels to show in the blood. If you experience poor performance from one generic and "try a different generic," as you say, you have already lost up to 8 weeks. You then have to wait another 6-8 weeks and possibly end up with symptoms and widely shifting TSH levels the whole time. You have then spent up to 16 weeks on generics not only without proper benefit for TSH suppression but also possibly putting the patient at risk for thyroid cancer recurrence.

    I use some generics, but when it comes to thyroid medications, generics are a no-go. When you vary generics you vary the fillers, which in turn changes absorption and that affects TSH.

    Please don't make blanket statements about moving from one generic to another, such as the one you made. It is not sound advice.

    April 4, 2013 at 07:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Maura Wilson

    The statement you made, which did not come through in my post, was this: "If you do switch to a generic and notice you're reacting differently, there are things you can do. You can try a different generic;"

    April 4, 2013 at 07:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. meria

    generic drugs are different than brand drugs. when pharmaceutical companies or corporations sell the brand name to others
    companies these new owners have permission to make changes and add fillers and dyes and other things to the brand drugs
    which than become generic drugs. of course under approval of the FDA.there is a difference between the brand name and the generic drugs.

    September 7, 2013 at 12:55 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.