How do medications get their names?

We often get questions as to why medications have such long complicated names and people wonder if the names have meaning.

In actual fact, the naming of prescription medications is based on international nomenclature regulations. When a new category of medications is introduced, certain groups of letters will be assigned to represent an aspect of how the medication works. Any other medication that is introduced in that category will have to incorporate that same group of letters within their name. For example, medications ending in “olol,” such as atenolol, bisoprolol and propranolol are all referred to as beta blockers and slow the heart rate. Medications ending in ‘zole” such as omeprazole and pantoprazole are acid lowering medications.

In the family of biologic medications which mimic proteins in the human body, several letter combinations have been assigned to indicate how the biologic works and what type of biologic it is. For example…

  • “Mab” at the end of the name means it mimics a monoclonal antibody, such as adalimumab (Humira)
  • If there is an “xi” included in the name, it means the cell used to produce the biologic is chimeric or mouse based such as; Infliximab or Rituximab
  • When the antibody being mimicked by the biological treatment is humanized in origin then “zu” is included, such as tocilizumab.
  • When a biologic is treating a tumour, “tu” is in the name. Such as tratuzamab.
  • Biologics used to treat bones have “os” such as denosumab (Prolia).

There are many more examples of this. The next time you look at a medication’s name, you’ll realize there is a lot of meaning behind those letters.


This blog post was written by Charlton Health specialist pharmacists Vishnu Dyal and Carolyn Whiskin.


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