Where Do Drug Names Come From?

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Let’s be honest, sometimes the drug names that you see on prescriptions can be bamboozling. It’s tempting to think that some pharmaceutical companies, such as those who come up with drug names like ‘RimabotulinumtoxinB’, simply look at the chemical in their possession and think ‘right, let’s make sure this one is as difficult as possible for everybody to pronounce.’ Why is it that some drugs, such as aspirin, are blessed with simple, easy-to-pronounce names, whereas your average decongestant contains the intimidating-sounding pseudoephedrine? Wouldn’t it be easier to just assign every drug a number? The whole issue is compounded by the fact that, as well as having chemical names (also known as ‘generic’ names), many drugs also have brand names.

Sildenafil-100-4Take for example the drug sildenafil, an extremely common erectile dysfuntion treatment better known by its brand name ‘Viagra’. Just where exactly do these names come from? The truth is, drugs get their generic names in a very different way to their brand names, and throughout this article we will look at specific examples of where different drug names come from to help us understand how the process works.

Generic drug names

First, lets look at how drugs are given their chemical names. There are over 120 drugs and medical Plant-Websubstances currently used that are derived from plants. As a consequence, many of these drugs have names that in some way relate to the plants they originate from. Digitoxin (trade name digibind) is a drug indicated to treat atrial fibrillation, and is synthesised using substances extracted from the plant ‘Digitalis purpurea’ (more commonly known as a ‘foxglove’). In fact, we can even dig deeper and look into the plant name itself- ‘Digitalis’ comes from the latin word for finger (digitus), which referes to the flower shape. Purpurea refers to the flower colour, which is often purple. It now becomes clearer to see that ‘Digitoxin’ is not just an arbitrary name that sounds more like a Pokemon than a drug, but rather has its origins in the plant it comes from. The plant names, in turn, are often based on Latin or Greek vocabulary.

Paracetamol is one of the most popular drugs in the world, and is a commonly available to buy off shelves in many high-street retailers. As well as being a painkiller, paracetamol has anti-pyretic properties, meaning it can reduce high body temperatures caused by fever. It actually happened to be discovered by accident when a similar molecule, called acetalanide, was given to patients over 100 years ago and seen to have analgesic effects. Upon refining the structure of acetanilide, the compound N-acetyl-para-aminophenol was discovered. Admittedly, that name is awfully complex. This is because it is based on the chemical groups that make up the structure of the compound, but just look at it once more. Para-acetyl-amino-phenol. From this, it becomes apparent that the name ‘Paracetamol’ is basically a shorter, more marketable version of the full chemical name.

Branded Drug Names

Now we have looked at where medicines get their generic names, we can turn our attention to branded drug names. As aforementioned, Viagra is an example of a branded medication that has dominated the shelves of high street pharmacies for years. Manufactured by pharmaceutical giants Pfizer, Viagra has been a mainstay treatment for male impotence since its release in 1998. Pfizer has actually kept their reasoning behind the name relatively quiet, but it is widely speculated that the ‘Vi’ aspect of the name comes from ‘Vitality’, ‘Virility’ or ‘Vigour’.

Protocol-WebThe Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has thorough protocols in place to minimise errors attributed to unclear drug naming. The Center of Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER) is a branch of the FDA that is responsible for evaluating the potential for a drugs brand name to cause medication errors. Between the years 2000-2009, the CDER received 126,000 medication error reports. Many of these appeared to be due to the similar sounds of some drug names. It is estimated to cost a company around $3 million to have a drug name approved by the FDA, demonstrating just how complex the process is.

The CDER firstly undertakes a promotional review of the proposed drug name. This is done to ensure the name is not misleading in any way. If a drug name overstates the effectiveness of the product itself, it is likely to fail at this stage of the drug naming process. Subsequently, a drug name must then pass the safety review stage. Approaches that involve generating lists of similar, potentially interchangeable names to the drug in question are used to evaluate the likelihood of confusion. Recently, the FDA demanded that the brand name of the antidepressant drug Bintellix was changed, on the grounds that it sounded to similar to the antiplatelet drug Bilinta. As a result, the name Bintellix was changed to Trintellix. This shows that no drug name is immune to being changed if it is thought to increase the risk of dispensing errors, even if it the drug itself is already on the market.

The vast amount of regulation that applies to drug naming is indicative of the FDA’s intent on minimising dispensing errors and ensuring patient safety is prioritised ahead of marketing. In line with these principles, it is important that customers purchase their products from regulated, trustworthy UK pharmacies. Here at Assured Pharmacy, all of the medicines we sell are FDA-approved. Upon completion of an online questionnaire, a GMC regulated doctor will issue a prescription that allows you to acquire prescription-only drugs in an efficient, safe and regulated manner. This prescription is then checked by a qualified pharmacist to ensure the treatment is suitable. We offer products that cover a wide range of medical issues, including premature ejaculation, women’s health and hair loss. If you would like to find out more information about the products we offer, or would simply like to speak to someone in confidence, please call 01625460621 or e-mail [email protected].


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http://www.fda.gov/downloads/Drugs/DrugSafety/MedicationErrors/ucm080867.pdf http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/DrugSafety/ucm497942.htm


Assured Pharmacy is not liable for the currency or accuracy of the information contained in this blog post. For specific information about your personal medical condition, please contact our doctors or pharmacists for advice on [email protected].

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