What’s in a (drug) name? How to optimize your study by looking at medicine names.

There is a wealth of knowledge in examining medicine names that not only help you look smart at trivia nights but also help you memorise medicines.

Learning STEMs

You will find that drugs within the same class often have the same prefixes, suffixes, or infixes — aka STEMs. For example, beta blockers such as bisoprolol and metoprolol have the suffix “olol”.

The use of STEM is governed by the International Non-proprietary Name (INN) or the respective country’s version, such as USA’s United States Adopted Names (USAN). I’m sure many of you have discovered STEM patterns by yourself and early in your studies. So we won’t go into much detail about it here. A large list of the INN and USAN stems at the end.

*In several countries like Australia, some cephalosporins are spelt with a “ph” i.e. cephalexin instead of cefalexin. ** “HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors” class is commonly known as the “Statins” class. However, to reduce the confusion with Nystatin, an antifungal, it is best to remember the suffix as “Vastatin.”

Brand name origins and breakdown

What is more interesting and not commonly taught is the naming method behind brand-name drugs. Brand names do more than just reassure your grumpy customer that the drug isn’t from a third world country.

“The (drug’s) brand name must be unique to protect the trademark; not sound or look too much like any other drug name to avoid medical errors; and should suggest a story, property, use or emotional tie.” — The ABCs of naming a drug.

There are many hints and clues inside brand names that help you with your study of medicines. Many brand names are a reflection on the drug’s indication. For example, Diabex treats diabetes. Names can be based on the drug name. For example, Amoxil is the brand name of amoxicillin. Brand names can also be a combination of both. For example, Pravachol takes its name from the drug name pravastatin and its use in treating cholesterol.

Some brand names are clever portmanteau ‒ two or more words blended to make a new one. For example, Lasix (frusemide) comes from Last Six hours, in reference to approximately how long it affects the body. The HRT, Premarin, derives its conjugated estrogens from pregnant mare urine.

If this is the first time you’ve learnt these, don’t think you’ve broken the Da Vinci code. Lecturers love teaching these to new students, so try and act surprise. But you may not get taught about Sinemet (L-DOPA with carbidopa): from Latin, sin (without) and emet (vomit). Sinemet can still cause nausea and vomiting but when compared to L-DOPA alone it’s less likely to.

Memorise Medicine’s flash card’s notes section contains many more examples of brand name breakdowns you may not ever learn. Example:

  • Xarelto is the brand name of rivaroxaban a factor Xa inhibitors.
  • Oxycontin is oxycodone continuous release. Oxynorm is oxycodonenormal release.
  • Imdur is Isosorbide mononitrate duration controlled release.
  • MS Contin is Morphine Sulphate continuous release. Fun trivia fact: morphine is named after Morpheus, the Greek God of Dreams.

Learning brand name stems

The use of STEMs is in numerous brand names. For example, if the brand name has the “cor” stem, it probably relates to the heart. “Cor” is Latin for heart.

“Cor” is not to be confused with “cort” which is an abbreviation for Corticosteroids i.e. Aristocort (triamcinolone) and Cortate (Cortisone).

The use of the stem “os” (Latin for bone) is in numerous drugs that affect bone. It’s even seen in one of the main class to treat osteoporosis ‒bisphosphonates.

Please note: Actos (Pioglitazone), a diabetic medicine, does not follow this stem.


Making up stories about drug names can be an effective way to learn. The stronger the association that easier it will be for you to remember. For example, for Cordarone X, the X stands for X-rays because amiodarone potentially causes pulmonary toxicity so you will need regular X-rays while on this medicine. Benzodiazepines such as temazepam are good for catching zzz’s. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRIs) are also serotonin sperm release inhibitor in reference effect of causing impotence.

So, what’s in a name? That which we call a drug. By any other name would work as well (despite what that grumpy customer says). However, it may not be as easy to learn.

Students that are studying medicines. Let us come together and help each other. If you have any good terminologies to help memorise medicines, post it in the comment section. They may be added to the notes section to their respective flash card.

Help a student out. Write a note or comment.


The ABCs of naming a drug. USA TODAY 10/8/2007