Drug Info

Are generic drugs as good as brand-name medicines?

Joni Sweet Headshot By | March 18, 2019
Medically reviewed by Karen Berger, Pharm.D.

Choosing the generic alternative to a brand-name drug is a no-brainer when you consider the costs. You can save 80% to 85% on average by using a generic. But when you look at the discount, you might wonder if that reduced price comes at a cost in quality. Are generic drugs as good as brand-name medicines? Here’s what you should consider next time you fill a prescription.

Are generics and brand-name drugs the same?

That old saying, “You get what you pay for,” might be true at a shoe store or used car dealership, but it doesn’t apply at the pharmacy.

“Generic drugs and brand-name drugs are basically indistinguishable products,” said Dr. Kyle Varner, a physician who specializes in internal medicine. “It’s like buying Lucerne milk versus store-brand milk.”

To get approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), generic drugs must have the same active ingredient, strength, dosage form (such as a tablet or a liquid), and route of administration (like oral or topical) as their designer counterparts. The FDA also applies the same standards for manufacturing, packaging, and testing sites to both types of medicine. A generic might not look identical to a brand-name drug, but it offers the same performance.

So if generics are the same as brand-name drugs, why do they cost less?

“It’s because the brand name drugs are manufactured by the company that brought the drug to market,” said Dr. Erum Ilyas, a board-certified dermatologist at Montgomery Dermatology.

On average, the approval process costs more than $2.5 million and takes at least a decade. Drug developers recoup that cost by charging a premium before their patent expires and lets other companies swoop in to produce less expensive generics.

RELATED: New generic drugs available in 2019

What’s the difference between generic and brand-name drugs?

While generics and brand-name drugs have the same active ingredient, their inactive ingredients (like dyes, fillers, and preservatives) can vary.

“This could be important information for someone who has a unique allergy. Generally, this is a very small group of people and they may need custom-compounded drugs,” said Varner.

The difference in formulas could have a slight impact on how the active ingredients are absorbed by the body. A large-scale study found that there’s a 3.6% to 4.4% difference in the absorption of generics vs. brand name drugs. 

The difference is so small that it won’t matter for most patients, but it’s something to consider when you’re taking a medication for the long term.

“The biggest issue for me as a practitioner comes when a pharmacy switches between two generic versions of the same medication for a patient,” said Ilyas, adding that changing generics could amplify differences in efficacy. “Patients will tell me they’ve been taking a medicine forever, and all of a sudden it doesn’t work as well or they have a reaction.”

Consistency is key when it comes to getting the results you want from medicines, said Ilyas. Both she and Varner agreed that if you’re on a generic medication to manage a chronic condition and you’re happy with the formula, ask your pharmacist for the name of the manufacturer. That way, you’ll be able to find it again if your pharmacy decides to switch to a different supplier for that drug. Although most patients do fine switching between manufacturers, certain drugs may be more likely to cause an adverse effect or toxicity when changing. These drugs include: Coumadin (warfarin), Synthroid (levothyroxine), Tegretol (carbamazepine), Lanoxin (digoxin), lithium, and Dilantin (phenytoin). 

The bottom line: generic vs. brand-name drugs

Embrace the savings! For example, Lyrica can cost between $460 and $720 per month. Its generic, pregabalin, costs only $140 to $370 per month without insurance. That’s hundreds of dollars less! 

Experts agree that generic drugs are just as safe and effective as brand-name medicines. Check out our prescription coupon finder here to see how much you can save on the generic version of your medication.