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How do prescription drugs get their names?

MINNEAPOLIS — The inside of a medicine cabinet is like a chaotic collection of the English language. Prescription and over-the-counter drugs often have unique names, spelled in weird ways. It’s a thorough process, with more rules than you might think.

The science behind how a pill or spoonful liquid can cure illnesses and relieve pain is confounding. Maybe that’s why a drug’s name shares the same trait

Before a drug gets its brand name — like the well-known medicines Robitussin, Claritin, and Tamiflu — we need to understand their generic name, which is where things get extra confusing.

The US Adopted Name Council, which approves the generic names, has standards to help ensure they are simple, easy to remember, and informative. Which is funny because the first two parts rarely happen.

Take Tamiflu, which helps relieve flu symptoms. Its generic name is oseltamivir. The suffix is “-vir,” which stands for antiviral.

Allergy medicines are similar. Claratin’s generic name is loratadine, and Zyrtec’s is cetirizine. The last three letters in both reflect their purpose as an antihistamine.

The prefix is often inspired by the drug’s chemical make up, and several rules apply. It must have two syllables, and it must be unique enough to not sound or look similar to other drugs, in order to avoid medication errors.

As for the full name, certain letters can’t be used because they aren’t in all languages; they’re Y, H, K, J and W. And no marketing is allowed, such as sneaking in the manufacturers name.

It must then be approved by the USAN, and then the World Health Organization. Only then comes the brand name, which often has a meaning that’s easier for the average person to understand.

Robitussin was made by the A.H. Robins Company, and is an antitussive, which means it fights coughing. Viagra, an erectile dysfunction drug, has a name that mimics the words vigor and vitality.

The key here is it’s a name you’re more likely to remember, even if the letters still feel random.

Pfizer says it has a team come up with 200 potential brand names before a thorough review process takes it down to three.

It could be two or three years before the official name of a drug is decided.


Source: CBS Minnesota

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