Every person has opened up that brownish prescription container and taken out a pill to treat a symptom. The question that nobody asks is: Did my pharmacist fill the prescription correctly? Think of all the movie scenes where a pill container gets knocked over and the actor quickly tries to put everything back based on what he thought was the correct order. Uh oh, don’t get nervous, but remember pharmacists are people also. Mistakes can happen considering that the original containers coming from drug manufacturers are basically the same style and type but with different labels. The possibility always exists that your diabetes pill could be accidentally filled as an antidepressant.
So how do you identify pills?
Prescription drugs come in several types: tablet, capsule, caplet, over-encapsulated and gelcaps. A tablet is your standard everyday tablet which is made up of powders compressed into a hard form. Capsules are made up of an outer shell of starches or gelatins and hold the active ingredient in tiny round spheres. Caplets are designed to look like a capsule but are compressed like a tablet. Caplets usually have a smooth outer coating. Gelcaps are capsules made from gelatin and hold the active ingredient in a liquid form. And finally over-encapsulated tablets are tablets covered with a capsule along with some filler.
Prescription Drug Shapes
Let’s start first with the basic shapes of pills. The majority of prescription drugs are either oval or round. That is the most common shape. As a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry, I have seen triangular, octagonal and even cylindrical. Those drugs were special and designed for a purpose based on the active ingredient’s chemical structure. For our conversation, we will be focusing on round tablets and oval tablets or capsules.
Most capsules whether gelcaps or capsules are oval in nature. There is a specific reason for the design of capsules and tablets. The smaller the amount of active ingredient needed (dosage), the rounder the tablet becomes. If you need more drugs (higher dose) at one time, then the drug is created in a more oval shape. Did you ever try to swallow a quarter? It is kind of difficult to swallow flat. Not impossible but hard on your throat. Oval shapes help glide down your throat.
Prescription Drug Colors
After the shape is sorted out, color is added. As many would expect, white is the most common color but it is hard to differentiate between dosage strengths or between other drugs if everything is just white. So color was introduced into manufacturing to add variety and keep everything different and helpful. Capsules also have different colors depending on the design. They can be one solid color or they can have multiple colors including racing stripes. Believe it or not, you can get creative.
Keep in mind that color design is important not only for differentiation but also for where the drug is broken down. If a pill is designed to be absorbed in the intestines, you don’t want a blue color. The simple reason is that the whole tablet won’t be absorbed and so people would freak out if they saw chunks of blue in their stool sample. Make the pill brown and everyone is happy with the world again.
Prescription Drug MarkingsSo I have made my pill, added a color to make it different. The next step is to imprint a code or markings on the pill. This has several variations. You can imprint your corporate logo, the name of the drug if it’s short, the dosage strength or some combination of the three. I have seen corporate logos on one side and dosage strength on the other. This will make the pill unique and help pharmacists identify it. During clinical trials testing, appearance is an important test, to confirm if the right medication is used. If any of the markings are off, then an investigation ensues.
Some pills have an enteric coating or other type of coating on the outside of the tablet. Sometimes if you look closely, you can see a shine to the tablet. This is the coating. The enteric coating is a chemical layer designed to delay the breakdown of the tablet until it gets into the intestines. These are common in some extended release pills. What types of pills have you seen?