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Generic Drugs: The Good, the Bad & the Deadly

by Ray Gregoire,

Are you better off buying generic drugs or paying full price for a brand name medication? Some generics are fine, but you may want to avoid others.

THE GOOD: Generic Drugs Are Cheaper

Your prescription has just come out in a generic form, saving you as much as $100 or more a month. That’s no small savings for anyone trying to make ends meet in these hard economic times, but it is not necessarily good news. As my dad use to say, “You get what you pay for in this world.”

The BAD: Generic Drugs May Be the Wrong Dose

The Federal Drug Administration gives generic drugs a lot of leeway, and the generic version of a drug could be as low as 80% of the strength of the name brand drug, or it could be up to 125% of the strength of the branded drug, as measured by the active ingredient in the name brand drug.

A good analogy here is gasoline for your car. You have been buying a name brand gasoline and you usually buy 20 gallons. Now you can buy Brand X or Brand Y for less money, but the problem is that with Brand X, instead of getting 20 gallons of gas, you only get 16 gallons (80%), which will cause you to run out of gas in the middle of nowhere. Or, if you buy brand Y, you may get 25 gallons (125%) of gas, causing your tank to overflow and become a potential fire hazard.

should I take generic drugs - boomerinas.comFurthermore, a name brand drug can have several different generics made by different manufacturers. This complicates the issue further, because each brand of generic is allowed to have different fillers. You may be allergic to the fillers, or the fillers could interfere with the efficacy of the generic drug, or the fillers could affect some other medication(s) you take.

Having worked for a large pharmaceutical company on the consumer-products side, I have interacted with many pharmacists over the years and they all have verified the accuracy of this problem.

The Deadly: Generics You May Want to Avoid

In the case of many drugs, the difference in strength is not very dangerous, however there are some medications where the dosage can be critical.

According to Tod Cooperman, MD, President of Comsumerlab.com, “This (difference in dosage) is particularly troubling for medications for which blood levels must be kept in a narrow range in order to be effective and/or to avoid toxicity.” Dr. Cooperman gives several examples of common medications where correct dosage is critical:

  • Thyroid medication
  • Anti-seizure medication
  • Blood thinners
  • Antidepressants
  • Antipsychotics
  • Asthma medications
  • Immunosuppressants

I have dealt with ill effects of improper dosage within my own family. My wife, Tina, had her thyroid zapped (with radioactive iodine) and must have a precise dose of artificial thyroid medication. If the dose is even slightly off, it causes her great discomfort or worse.

Imagine if your blood-thinner medication strength is too high. A minor cut could cause serious bleeding. Too low of a dose and blood clots could form, leading to a heart attack.

If you and your doctor find a generic brand that works properly for you, make sure you get the same brand of generic each time, or you could end up going from a pill that meets the minimum requirement to a pill that gives you the maximum dose. And, this means you could end up with a potential increase of up to 45% more of the active ingredient. Or, if you went from a high dose generic to a low dose generic, it could mean a decrease of 45% less of the proper medication. Another issue exists with time-release (extended release) drugs, which can deliver medication more quickly or more slowly than the branded version.

The bottom line here is that if you use generic medications and you have an adverse reaction, call 911 and/or your doctor immediately, and report the problem to the Federal Drug Administration.

Note: The author is not a physician. This article should be used for informational purposes only. Please consult with your own doctor to determine when it is important to use a brand name medication and when it is safe for you to take a generic version of a specific drug. Another good source of information is your local pharmacist. For more information about generic drugs, see Resources below.

More Articles for Baby Boomers:

How to Manage Multiple Pills and Medications

Chronic Pain Management Techniques: 4 Natural Tools

Aspirin May Delay Alzheimer's

How Yoga Can Eliminate Stress and Anxiety


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Ray Gregoire is a retired executive from Johnson & Johnson.

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