Are Generic Drugs Safe?

What you need to know when deciding between brand-name drugs and their generic drugs counterparts.

By Chris Woolston from Reader's Digest magazine | April 2012

Are generic drugs safe?
What you’ve always heard: Switching from brand-name to generic drugs is safe and can save you money. In fact, the average price of a generic medication is 80 percent less than its brand-name alternative. The FDA promises that when a generic drug is approved, it has met “rigorous standards” of quality, purity, and potency—a guarantee that makes a swap very appealing.

But wait…: The American College of Cardiology has warned that the absorption rates and potency of generics may differ from those of certain types of brand-name drugs—a discrepancy that could be life-threatening in some cases. With some medications, slight changes in the level of the drug in the blood can cause unintended side effects. For example, too weak a dose of a blood thinner could leave a person vulnerable to a heart attack or stroke; too strong a dose might cause internal bleeding.

The headlines now: By the end of the year, ten top-selling brand-name drugs in America will be available as generics.If you’re taking Lipitor for cholesterol, your doctor might suggest generic atorvastatin instead. Patients with asthma will soon have a choice between Singulair and montelukast. The blood thinner Plavix will soon compete with the generic clopidogerol.

So what should you do?: With any medication—generic or brand-name—there’s a chance of complications, says Sheila Weiss Smith, former director of the Center for Drug Safety at the University of Maryland. But if your health-care professional recommends switching to a generic, you can feel confident about making a change. Generics may not be exact copies of brand-name versions, but because they have the same active ingredients in the same amounts, they’re just as safe and effective. In the rare cases in which drug strength must be exact—blood thinners or certain drugs for heart failure, for example—a doctor should carefully monitor any switch to a generic.

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