Why are drug names so long and complicated? A pharmacist explains the logic behind the nomenclature

At some point in your life, you’ll likely find yourself with a prescription from your doctor to fill. While it’s important to keep track of all the medications you’re taking, that can be hard to do when the names of so many of these drugs are difficult to pronounce and even harder to remember.

In my role as a pharmacist, I’ve helped countless patients figure out exactly which medication they were taking for what ailment. Some wonder why they were prescribed the medication in the first place, or need help differentiating between drugs with names that seem like complete gibberish.

But there is a rhyme and a reason to drug names. All prescribed medications follow a standard nomenclature that describes what the drug is made of and how it functions.

Who names drugs?

Drugs get both a brand, or proprietary, name and a generic name that is nonproprietary. Each is assigned in a slightly different process.

As long as a drug compound isn’t trademarked, drug companies decide on a proprietary brand name for the medications they sell. Usually the brand name relates to the conditions the drug is intended to treat and is easy for both providers and patients to remember but doesn’t follow a standardized naming guideline. For example, the drug Lopressor helps lower blood pressure.

On the other hand, generic drug names all follow a standard nomenclature that helps medical providers and researchers more easily recognize and classify the drug. Lopressor, for example, has a generic name of metoprolol tartrate. The U.S. Adopted Names Council, composed of representatives from the Food and Drug Administration, American Medical Association, U.S. Pharmacopeia and American Pharmacists Association, works with the World Health Organization to assign international nonproprietary names, or INNs, to drug compounds. Similar organizations exist internationally.

Pharmacist organizing medicine drawer

Generic drugs are named using standard guidelines intended to minimize confusion and aid in classification.
Marko Geber/DigitalVision via Getty Images

A globally recognized naming process makes an otherwise confusing name game more manageable. It helps the medical community easily learn and categorize newly approved medications and reduce prescribing errors by providing a unique, standard name that reflects each active ingredient in the drug.

For example, several Type 2 diabetes medications fall under one class called glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) receptor agonists. Although all medications in this class have different brand names, each of the generic versions ends in the suffix “-tide.” This helps health providers identify all the drugs that belong to this medication class. A few examples include Byetta (exenatide), Trulicity (dulaglutide) and Victoza (liraglutide).

How are generic drug names assigned?

The naming process starts when a drug company submits an application to the U.S. Adopted Names Council with a proposed generic name. USAN considers…

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