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Generic vs. Brand-Name Over-the-Counter Medication

Posted on 2/8/2013 12:00 EST

Warning: Flu season is in full swing and the common cold is making the rounds. If you or a loved one happens to catch either or some other everyday bug, treatment can get pretty costly pretty quickly. There are numerous brand-name over-the-counter medications targeted at such ailments, but what about their cheaper generic counterparts?

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We scoured review boards to learn whether the outcomes differ when using generic medications or their brand-name counterparts to counter flu and non-flu symptoms. The FDA requires that generic over-the-counter medications include the exact same active ingredients as those of the popular brands, which makes them acceptable substitutes. The same rule does not apply to prescription medications, however, so speak to your physician before switching to generics.

Generic over-the-counter medications cost less than the brand-name equivalent largely because the latter are backed by expansive (and expensive) marketing campaigns and investments in research and development. But can you, the consumer, tell the difference between a brand-name over-the-counter medication and the generic version? The answer, it seems, depends on the presenting health problem.

Brand-Name Decongestants:

Sudafed 12 Hour Non-Drowsy Nasal Decongestant Coated Caplets ($5.49/20 count)

Generic Decongestants:

Walgreens Wal-Phed PE Nasal Decongestant Maximum Strength ($3.99/20 count)
At WebMD, Wal-Phed Oral receives an average of 4.1 stars from six users while Sudafed Oral wins an average 3.82 stars from 22 users at the same site. Both sets of reviews praise and criticize the same qualities. Many say the over-the-counter medication cleared up stuffy noses and helped relieve headache symptoms while others claim to have experienced no gain from the products and asked a physician to prescribe something stronger. Users of both versions note that the over-the-counter medication kept them awake at night.

Brand-Name Expectorant:

Robitussin Cough + Chest Congestion DM ($7.99/8 ounces)

Generic Brand Expectorant:

Walgreen Wal-Tussin Cough & Chest Congestion DM ($6.49/8 ounces but price may vary by store)
Wal-Tussin scores an average 2.56 stars at Web-MD, based on three user reviews, to Robitussin's average of 2.62, based on 13 user reviews. At Viewpoints, the average of 20 user reviews nets Robitussin a score 79 out of 100 and the average of five user reviews gives Wal-Tussin a score 74 out of 100. Some Wal-Tussin reviews at Viewpoints assert this generic over-the-counter medication is an effective and cheaper version of Robitussin. One reviewer, however, insists it tastes awful and after a week had failed to quash her cough while Robitussin proved effective within three days. That said, a major complaint lobbed at Robitussin in reviews concerns what users claim is an unappealing taste.

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Brand-name Acetaminophen with Aspirin:

Excedrin Extra Strength Tablets ($11.85/200 count)

Generic Acetamiophen with Aspirin:

Equate - Headache Relief, Extra Strength, Acetaminophen, Aspirin and Caffeine ($6.98/200 count)
The Walmart generic, Equate, earns an average 4.5 stars at Amazon from 51 users. Many express regret at having paid for the higher-priced Excedrin in the past given their subsequent experience of the same headache relief with the cheaper generic. A few naysayers argue that the generic over-the-counter medication didn't work as quickly as Excedrin and at Viewpoints, more than 110 users reward Excedrin Extra Strength with a whopping average score of 92 out of 100.

Brand-Name Antacid:

Tums E-X Extra Strength Antacid/Calcium Supplement ($5.29/96 count)

Generic Antacid:

Equate Antacid/Calcium Rich Tablets, Extra Strength 750 mg (approximately $4.20/200 count, prices vary by store)
Equate Extra Strength 750 mg receives two positive reviews worth an average 4.5 stars at Amazon that claim this over-the-counter medication eliminated heartburn almost immediately. Another set of two reviews at Amazon for a larger size of the generic are mixed: one person claims Equate is as effective as Tums while another says it lacks the taste punch of the name-brand competition. Indeed, posts at the Tums website comment on the nice flavor of the Extra Strength tablets and say they work noticeably faster than regular Tums. Many of the 10 reviews found at Epinions also say Tums E-X provide quick but short-lived relief and award it an average 4.5 stars.

Brand-Name Ibuprofen:

Advil Pain Reliever/Fever Reducer Coated Tablets ($14.99/200 count)

Generic Ibuprofen:

Equate Ibuprofen Pain Reliever/Fever Reducer Coated Tablets approximately $4/200 count)
One review at Viewpoints succinctly states that Equate does the same job as Advil but costs far less. Consumers recommend the product for minor arthritis relief, swelling, toothaches, and headaches, etc., and assign it an average score of 92 out of 100. One user suggests that Advil continues to outsell the generic over-the-counter medication for surface reasons; i.e., the brand-name product has a shiny coat that tastes a tad sweet. Advil attracts an average 4.6 stars from 33 reviews at Amazon

by Alyssa Goldman (Google+ Profile)

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