Medicine names

This section covers:

International standards and resources

International nonproprietary names (INNs) for medicines are assigned by the World Health Organization.

The International Union of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology Committee on Receptor Nomenclature and Drug Classification (NC-IUPHAR) issues guidelines for the nomenclature and classification of (human) biological receptors, including the targets of current and future prescription medicines.

Australian conventions and resources

The Therapeutic Goods Administration publishes lists of approved names for ingredients of medicines in Australia.

The Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care has published Recommendations for terminology, abbreviations and symbols used in medicines documentation.

Medicine names in general

If possible, use INN names, which are in lower case. Use initial capitals for proprietary (trade) names:

INN: diazepam, proprietary: Valium

INN: paracetamol, proprietary: Panadol

However, whether to use the INN or the proprietary name depends partly on the audience for the publication. If the audience is likely to be more familiar with the proprietary name, use this first and give the INN in brackets:

Nurofen (ibuprofen) was more effective in relieving pain than Panadol (paracetamol).

Some medicines are also known by abbreviations – for example, AZT (for which the INN is zidovudine). Because these abbreviations are often not standardised, their use can lead to errors, including errors in prescribing of medicines (which may be life-threatening). Abbreviations should therefore not be used for medicine names:

zidovudine   not   AZT

fluorouracil   not   5-FU

Abbreviations may be used to refer to different modified-release forms of medicines, dose forms or routes of administration: 

tramadol SR  =  tramadol slow release
MDI  =  metered dose inhaler
IM  =  intramuscular
Did you know? Tall Man lettering is a typographic technique that is used to make medicine names that look and sound alike more easily distinguishable. It uses a combination of capital letters and lower-case letters – for example, azATHIOPRINE and aziTHROMYCIN. The capital letters disrupt the reading of the medicine name and draw attention to syllables that differ between medicines. The World Health Organization, among other organisations, recommends use of Tall Man lettering as a way to reduce the risk of medication errors associated with ‘look alike, sound alike’ medicine names. 
Return to top


The names of symbols for receptors for medicines and other mediators have not been standardised. Follow NC-IUPHAR terminology, where possible. Follow the rules in this section for the medicine component, and add alphanumeric descriptors, as required. For simple Greek-letter descriptors, it is generally better to give the name of the letter in full rather than using the Greek letter:

alpha-adrenoceptor     beta-blocker     beta-agonist

If the prefix is further qualified, however, it may be preferable to include the Greek letter and use subscripts:


Similarly for other descriptors:

D1-dopamine receptors     B2-bradykinin receptor

Return to top


For vitamin names that consist of a letter and a number, use either a hyphen between the letter and the number or a subscript for the number:

vitamin B-12   or   vitamin B12

Return to top

User login

... or purchase now

An individual subscription is only A$60 per year

Group and student discounts may apply

Australian manual of scientific style Start communicating effectively