Many people assume that look-alike over-the-counter (OTC) medicines contain the same active ingredients as the more expensive brand name products. But that’s not always the case. Take lip medicines for example – many of their labels suggest that they treat cold sores (caused by the herpes simplex virus), but only one active ingredient has been proven to work. Docosanol is the active ingredient in Abreva, and has been approved by the FDA to shorten the duration as well as prevent the outbreak of cold sores (an estimated 20-40% of Americans are afflicted by cold sores).
In a recent survey (sponsored by Abreva), 66% of respondents said they believed that “look-alike” medications contained the same active ingredients as the brands that they were copying, and 93% said they purchased look-alikes solely because they were less expensive.
Unfortunately, you get what you pay for in this case. Even though the FDA may send out warning letters to manufacturers of look-alike products who print false healing claims on their packaging, those products often remain on store shelves. The manufacturer of Abreva (Glaxo Smith Kline) notes in a press release:
Several “look-alike” cold sore treatments tout healing claims, but contain the ingredient Benzalkonium Chloride instead of docosonal. The FDA recently issued a warning letter to a marketer and distributor of a product containing benzalkonium chloride that is making the claim on its product’s label that it heals cold sores. The FDA found that the active ingredient, benzalkonium chloride, is not indicated as a cold sore treatment and may not make cold sore healing claims because there is no scientific evidence to support claims that it heals cold sores.
Evidence suggests that Abreva shortens the duration of cold sores by about 18 hours, and may slightly reduce the risk of outbreak if the medicine is used at the first sign of pain or tingling. Whether that’s worth the price of the treatment is up to the consumer, but choosing a cheaper product with a different active ingredient is likely to be a waste of money.
The Abreva case serves as a reminder to check the active ingredients in your OTC medicines before purchasing what seems to be a cheaper, equivalent medicine. While generics are often a smart way to save money on effective medicines, look-alike medicines can sometimes be hiding fake cures in a convincing little package. Let the buyer beware!