Guide for Pill Identification

Updated April 17, 2017

Having a safe system for pill identification is important for personal health and safety. Many people make common errors in handling their prescription medications, and prevention of these costly miscalculations is critical. There are steps that we can take for safe medication handling and identification. These steps could someday save a life. Human error is certain, but if we double-check our prescriptions each and every time we refill them, then life-threatening errors are less likely to occur.


Being able to identify prescription medications is more important now than it has been in the past. There are many more drugs on the market, many generic forms of brand name medications, and drug names that are so similar that mistakes in dispensing are commonplace.


We mistakenly think that our pharmacist could never give us the wrong medication. Many pharmacies rely on interns and pharmacy technicians to help fill prescriptions. There are numerous medications on the market with names similar enough to be mistaken for the wrong medication. A pharmacist is human, and it doesn't hurt to double check your prescription each time it is refilled.


Generic medications can appear quite different depending on the manufacturer. Even the same pharmacy can use different manufacturers given supply and demand. If you refill a prescription, and the pills look different, please discuss this with your pharmacist before taking the first pill. A brand name medication will look exactly the same each and every time, and should be easily identified. Due to insurance constraints and economic concerns, generic forms of brand name medications are used more often.


The best way to avoid prescription identification mishaps is to use the same pharmacy for all your prescription refills, and develop a first name relationship with your pharmacist. If something looks amiss, call back and ask what the medication should look like. There is also a pill identification book on the market that can be used as a handy desk reference. It contains full coloured pictures of each medication and helps to identify what prescription medications should look like. See the Resources section for additional information.


Never put medications into another container. Leaving medication in the original labelled container ensures that you know what you are taking at all times. Never accept medication from a friend or family member, even if the same medication was prescribed to you. Always ask your pharmacist if you are unsure about the size, colour, shape, or identification markings of a new refill.

Health care Emergencies

If you have been on the same prescription for a period of time and suddenly react to this medication differently, stop taking it and call your pharmacist and general health care practitioner immediately. If you develop life-threatening symptoms such as shortness of breath, hives, palpitations, or other unusual symptoms, go directly to the emergency room.

General Safety

In most cases, your prescriptions are accurate and completely safe, but you have a responsibility to double check each time our prescriptions are refilled. Pill identification and error prevention is a partnership between you and a qualified pharmacist. Prescriptions come with a reference guide attatched to the bag each time a medication is refilled. Carefully read these precautions and save the reference guide as a permanent reference sheet, and refer to it when needed. See additional resources for a handy desk reference that can assist in general pill identification. This inexpensive book should be purchased annually due to the arrival of new medicines and changes in existing ones.

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About the Author

Sidney Edmonds began writing professionally in 2008, including news articles, research, and fiction. She specializes in natural health and healing, business management, human resources, psychology, gardening, and travel. Sidney holds an M.B.A. in human resource management and wrote her first young adult paranormal trilogy under a pen name.