By Heather Brown


MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Zyrtec, Xeljanz, Lipitor. They might sound like strange words, but they’re now household names after billions of dollars of advertising by drug companies. That had Kim from River Falls wanting to know: How do prescription drugs get their names?

Prescription drugs generally have three names – the brand (Lipitor), the generic (atorvastatin) and a chemical name. The chemical name describes the molecular composition of the drug. Brand and generic names are labeled on the bottles, while the chemical names are not.

“Brand names are important because those are the trademarked names used in drug advertising,” says Roger Feldman, a health economist with the University of Minnesota. “They are used to get consumers familiar with the drug, so they will recommend it to their physicians.”

The Food and Drug Administration must approve the brand name of a drug.  According to experts, up to 40 percent of those names are rejected each year. The FDA reviews the names primarily for safety reasons. In the effort to avoid confusion and medical mistakes, it does want the names of any drugs to look or sound alike. The FDA also reviews names for promotional reasons to determine if they are too fanciful or misleading.

“The drug companies make up the names,” says Feldman. “They want a name that’s catchy, that will get the attention of consumers and physicians who prescribe the drug.”

Other times, the drug’s name will hint at what the drug will do. For example, Viagra connotes vitality. Lunesta is derived from lunar. Claritin can be associated with clear.

According to Vince Budd, senior vice president for Addison Whitney Health, some drugs also link back to their generic names so physicians are more aware of how they work. Budd says other drug names can be far more random, with no particular meaning other than to be unique. That makes the FDA and other international governmental agency approvals easier.

“One of the purposes of a brand name is to create this identity that you will remember,” says Feldman. “You’re probably more likely to remember it if it starts with an X or Z because that’s so unique.”

Heather Brown

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