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What color is your drug today? Changing appearances may make you less likely to take your medication

Consumer Reports News: January 09, 2013 05:31 PM

A change in the shape or color of a drug can make you less likely to take it, according to a new study. It found that people who regularly took generic antiseizure drugs but who were given pills with differing appearances at each refill appeared less likely to take their medications as prescribed.

The finding, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, is important because it highlights a serious problem with how generic drugs are sold in this country. While the FDA stipulates that generic medications must have the same active ingredients in the same strength, be absorbed in the body the same way and at the same rate, and be as effective as brand-name drugs, they don't have to look identical. In fact, because of patent laws, they're often required to look different.

What's more, multiple manufacturers of the same generic medication often make pills that are of different shapes, colors, and sizes. The result? The possibility of a different-looking drug each time you go to the pharmacy.

To avoid confusion, and to make sure you're not one of the 50 to 75 percent of people who don't take their medications as directed, take the following steps:

  • Inspect your meds before you leave the pharmacy and ask the pharmacist about any concerns you might have with the shape, color, or size of the pills you received.
  • At home, check if you've got the right medication by using's Pill Identifier tool. That allows you to search by shape, color, the drug's name, or the letters or numbers that appear on the pill, itself.
  • Organize your pills in a weekly pill box.

For drugs that are effective and safe only within a small dosing range, such as blood thinners, antiseizure drugs, or thyroid medication, our medical consultants say to consider sticking with one manufacturer's product (although this will likely require the cooperation of your pharmacist). There can be very small variations among the same generics with different manufacturers, and, although allowed by the FDA, such minor variances could affect some people's response to the medication. These sorts of differences can sometimes even be found between the same brand-name drug that is manufactured at different times.


Variations in Pill Appearance of Antiepileptic Drugs and the Risk of Nonadherence [Archives of Internal Medicine]

Ask the Pharmacist: Why do my pills look different each time I fill the same prescription? [Consumer Reports]

Are generic drugs safe? [Consumer Reports]

Lisa Luca

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