Drug Nomenclature

November 12, 2021




The word drug is often associated with addictive or narcotic substances in common conversation. In pharmacology, a drug is defined as a chemical substance of known structure, which when administered to a living organism, produces a biological effect. A drug may be a synthetic chemical, chemical obtained from plants or animals, or a product of genetic engineering. Medicine is a chemical preparation, which usually contains one or more drugs and other substances such as excipients, stabilizers or solvents, etc. administered to produce a therapeutic effect.

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Drug nomenclature is the systematic naming of pharmaceutical drugs. Usually three types of names are given to a drug which are:

  • Chemical name, the most important of which is the IUPAC name.
  • Generic or non-proprietary name. The most important of which are the International Non-Proprietary Name (INNs).
  • Proprietary name (Trade name or brand name)

A marketed drug might also have a company code or a compound code.

For example naming a commonly used fever lowering medicine is:

  • Chemical name: N-(4-hydroxy phenyl) acetamide.
  • Generic name : paracetamol
  • Propietory name is Tylenol, Adol ,Panadol, others
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The chemical name is the scientific name based on the molecular structure of a drug. There are various systems of chemical nomenclature and so many names are given to a substance. The most important of these is the IUPAC name, the name given by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. Chemical names are often long and complex and rarely used to identify a drug. Chemical names are necessary to give absolute definition to a compound.

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The Brand names (proprietary or trade name) are created by the company which patent the drug. Under the patent the company has an exclusive right to produce and sell the drug for a definitive period. It is the commercial property of a pharmaceutical company. Since several companies market the same drug under different proprietary names, causing unnecessary confusion.

In past, many countries have their national pharmacopeias. Due to vast development in the field of medicine and globalization, in 1953 WHO created the International Non-Proprietary Naming System to give a unique standard name for each active ingredient to avoid confusion. Several countries also have their national system for creating generic names, such as British Applied Names (BAN), the United States Adopted Names (USAN). WHO collaborates closely with INN experts and national nomenclature committees to select a single name of worldwide acceptance for each active substance that is to be marketed as a pharmaceutical substance. INNs are issued in various languages ( English, Latin, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, and Arabic). INNs in different languages have minor spelling or pronunciation differences. INNs are intended to make communication more precise by providing a unique standard name for each active ingredient, to avoid prescribing errors. Having unambiguous standard names for each drug (standardization of drug nomenclature) is important because a drug may be sold by many different brand names.

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Each medicine INN is unique. Under the INNs, the generic names are constructed out of affixes and stems that classify a medicine in different categories. Stem or root may be found in the middle or most often at the end of drug name which suggests its action and class of drug.

Some examples of stems, drug class and examples of drug are:

Stems Class of DrugDrug examples
-cillinPenicillin derived antibioticsAmpicillin
Amoxicillin
-virAntiviral drugsAciclovir
Oseltamivir
-prilAngiotensin converting
enzyme inhibitors
Captopril
Lisinopril
-vastatincholesterol lowering drugs
(HMG-CoA Inhibitors)
Simvastatin
Atrovastatin
-azepamBenzodiazepinesDiazepam
Lorazepam
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