Can You Name That Pill?

Maybe this sounds like a cable TV game show, but it's not.

Every month millions of Americans pick up their prescription at the pharmacy, only to discover that their pill looks different than the month before. Last month’s oval, white pills embossed with “3972V” are now round, and display imprint “ML24”. Green, round pills are now green rectangles.

Change is good, but not necessarily at the pharmacy. Even though some of us realize that the pharmacy has replaced last month's generic pill with this month's generic pill (probably due to a cheaper wholesale price), it still leaves us concerned. We see the warning sticker on the bottle that alerts us of the pill change, but worry still lingers. Many of us put our good faith in the pharmacist and move on, happy that the generic price is still at the $10 price. Others of us are concerned, distrustful, and afraid to take the newly decorated pill. How do we handle this recurring problem?

Generic medication shapes and colors change frequently. In a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine on July 15, 2014, researchers looked at the medical records of over 11,500 Americans hospitalized for a heart attack between 2006 and 2011. All participants received a generic version of at least one heart medication: beta-blockers, ACE inhibitors, angiotensin II-receptor blockers or statins. During the study, 29 percent of patients saw a change in pill color or shape, and those who saw a change were more likely to skip their meds than those who had no change. The experts reported that when a heart medication changed in color, patients were 34 percent more likely to stop their medication; if the pill shape changed, the odds of stopping it skyrocketed to 66 percent.

Although the study cannot prove that the pill changes led to noncompliance, the association seems to be strong. Even more concerning is that the non-adherence occurred in patients taking heart medications. Stopping these drugs that control blood pressure or heart rate could be life-threatening. Some experts think that health care regulators like the FDA may need to address this issue -- requiring all manufacturers of any generic drug to conform to the shape and color of the original brand-name counterpart.

How Should You Handle a Change in Your Pill Appearance?

  • Check your pill bottles before you leave the pharmacy, and double-check with the pharmacist to be sure they are correct if they appear different in color, shape or imprint.

  • Don't stop taking your pills without a doctor's okay. If you get home and find the medication is different, call your pharmacist or doctor.

  • Search for your pill using the Drugs.com Pill Identifier Wizard. There's a good chance that our Pill Identification Wizard (Pill Finder) can help you match the imprint, size, shape, or color and lead you to a detailed description in our drug database. You can use this tool to identify stray pills you may find, too. Always follow-up with your healthcare provider for any outstanding questions.

Read More - Top 10 Ways to Save on Your Medication Costs: Slideshow

Another reason not to abandon your generic drug comes down to cost. Generic medications are one of the most effective ways to save prescription dollars at the pharmacy. Not all drugs are available generically, but those that are have exactly the same active ingredients and therapeutic effects as brand name drugs, and can cost 30 to 80 percent less. Even the FDA endorses generic drugs. Don't wait until you get to the pharmacy to ask for a generic – let your doctor or other healthcare provider know that you prefer generics before they write the prescription.

Have you received generic drugs in the past that have changed in color or shape? How did it make you feel and what did you do? Share your comments below.

Posted: July 2014


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