Visual Prescription Drug Identification

Updated March 23, 2017

Identifying prescription drugs with the naked eye is a skill that everyone should possess. Knowing whether the pill you've found in the bathroom is an over-the-counter pain reliever or a powerful prescription medication is a common-sense measure that can help ensure the safety of the entire family.


There is no FDA regulation for what a pill must look like. Colour, shape, size and other markings are not standardised.


The colour that pill manufacturers inject into their pills has nothing to do with the function or design of the medication. The colour is simply a dye that is designed to alter the appearance of the pill.

Imprint Codes

Each pill is stamped with a unique "imprint code." These codes are logged by the FDA, and pills can be identified via an online database by inputting their unique imprint code into an online search engine.

Dosage Identification

Each pill is also required to have the amount of the dosage stamped into its surface. A pill consisting of 5 milligrams of medication will have a "5" stamped into the side opposite the imprint code.

Online Identification

The Division of Drug Information, a division of the FDA, will help consumers identify any medication via e-mail. Simply e-mail the description of the pill, including colour, shape, and size, and they will respond within one business day.

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About the Author

Based in Kentucky, Katy Lindamood is a full-time freelance writer. She has been writing for magazines and professional websites since 2006 and has a background in retail management and home improvement. Lindamood holds a Bachelor of Science in business administration and human resources.