Tongue-twisting names of drugs are confusing, even dangerous


At last a drug company has gotten it right. A brand new prescription medicine for treating influenza will start arriving on pharmacy shelves this month. It's called Flumadine, a brand name that is easy to pronounce and understand.

Pharmaceutical manufacturers seem to specialize in coming up with names that are tongue twisters. Zaroxolyn is a diuretic for treating fluid retention and high blood pressure.

It's not exactly a best seller.

The birth control pill Norinyl is also hard to pronounce. Could that be why it's prescribed less often than Ortho-Novum, which contains the same ingredients?

The success of a drug depends to a large extent on its effectiveness and safety profile. But its name can affect popularity.

Prozac has been incredibly successful against depression. Some this was undoubtedly due to the benefits of the drug. But the name was easy to say and remember. Wellbutrin, an anti-depressant that came out shortly after Prozac, has barely been noticed, although it is roughly comparable to Prozac in effectiveness. Few people other than physicians would recognize the name.

Tagamet revolutionized the treatment of ulcers and heartburn in the 1980s. Although this medicine was very successful, Zantac, with its punchier name, has outstripped it. Similar acid-suppressing drugs, Axid and Pepcid, came along later and lack the Zantac zing. They are lagging behind in the marketplace.

A brand-new advance in the treatment of heartburn has many advantages but an awkward name. Propulsid will have a hard time competing with Zantac and Tagamet.

Getting the right name for a drug is quite a challenge. Not only does it need marketing pizazz, but it must be distinctive. When drugs sound too much alike, pharmacists may get confused. Over the telephone, similar-sounding drug names can be mistaken. Even written prescriptions may be hard to interpret if the doctor's handwriting is illegible.

When too many mistakes were made with Losec (an ulcer medicine) and Lasix (a diuretic), the manufacturer of Losec had to change its name. It is now Prilosec, harder to say but not as easily confused. Roche recently renamed its anti-sedative Mazicon to Romazicon because of possible mix-ups with Mivacron, a muscle relaxant.

As hard as it can be to pronounce or remember some brand names, generic names are worse. These, used for scientific purposes, are usually long and hard to spell. We defy you to get your tongue around the heart medicine pentaerythritol tetranitrate. Propoxyphene with acetaminophen is a lot harder to say than the brand name Darvocet-N.

Knowing the generic name becomes important if you want to save money, however. Diazepam, for example, costs less than its famous brand name Valium.

There are two other reasons why it is critical to learn the name and spelling of your medicine. You should always check your prescription to make sure you have received the proper medication. Pharmacists are good at interpreting doctors' orders, but mistakes are made.

And if you ever end up in an emergency room, the physicians there need to know exactly what drugs you are taking. If you can't remember or pronounce the name of your pills, write it down and carry it in your wallet. This could save you from a potential disaster.

Q: I hate using public restrooms, but sometimes it can't be avoided. It's not so bad if the stall has a dispenser for paper seat covers.

Is there a fast-acting disinfectant I could carry with me to sterilize the toilet seat before sitting down? I've had back trouble and it's becoming more difficult for me to use the toilet without sitting.

A: Although we searched the medical literature and consulted dermatologists, we could find no cases of disease transmitted by a toilet seat. Despite this, researchers have found that bacteria can contaminate the seat, doorknob, tap and flush handles.

Crouching isn't a good solution.

British gynecologists have found that women who hover over the toilet seat may not void as completely. This might increase the risk of urinary tract infections or make treatment of incontinence more difficult.

Trying to sterilize a toilet seat is probably unnecessary if not impossible. You could carry a disinfectant to clean the surface if that would make you comfortable enough to sit down. One technique would be to carry alcohol wipes. Bleach, diluted according to the instructions on the label, is an alternate cleaning solution.

Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Dr. Teresa Graedon is a medical anthropologist and nutrition expert.

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