Q&A on the News

Q: Is there any method to the madness when it comes to the names of prescription medications? The names that appear in all the commercials for drugs seem to be made up by random letter generators.

—Harris Gottlieb, Dunwoody

A: Pharmaceutical companies must follow a lengthy list of rules established by the U.S. Adopted Names Council, or USAN, when coming up with drug names.

USAN wants the names to be “useful primarily” to the health care professionals who will be working with them, and any name “should be free from conflict” with other names and trademarks, it states on its website.

A drug’s generic name – diazepam, for example – is different from its brand name – Valium. Many are formed from Latin, such as Lunesta — used to treat insomnia — which comes from the Latin word luna, meaning moon, Dr. Suzanne Koven wrote on Boston.com.

USAN has numerous guidelines, including: The letters “k,” “j,” “h” and “w” should be avoided; the letter “f” should be used instead of “ph,” “t” should be used instead of “th” and “i” should be used instead of “y” for the purpose of translation into other languages; and number references, such as “Deci” and “centi,” generally are not acceptable.

Companies use certain letters (“s,” “m,” “v,” “l” and “r”) when naming drugs primarily for women and other letters (“t,” “g,” or “x”) for drugs for men, Koven wrote.

The latter part of a drug’s name generally is the same for groups of drugs.

Atorvastatin (Lipitor), fluvastatin (Lescol), rosuvastatin (Crestor) and simvastatin (Zocor) are among cholesterol-lowering drugs that end in “vastatin,” theweek.com reported.

Andy Johnston wrote this column. Do you have a question about the news? We’ll try to get the answer. Call 404-222-2002 or email q&a@ajc.com (include name, phone and city).

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