The Colors of Medication


Like anything else in life, medications have gone through major scientific advancements; they have transformed from little round balls containing medicinal ingredients mixed with clay or bread some 5000 years ago in ancient Egypt, to an enormous variety of pills, capsules, and syrups, among several other forms, designed to target and cure different diseases. This variation is, once again not unlike anything else in life, not devoid of the touch of color, which, in fact, can tell us a lot about these medications.

Until the second half of the twentieth century, colorful medications were almost non-existent; most tablets were a hue of white. However, with the introduction of soft and hard gelatin capsules in the 1960s, colors invaded the pharmaceutical industry and have since had a major medical and commercial role to play. The very early colors included red, green, and yellow; today, more than 80,000 color combinations are readily available for pill coatings, and more is yet to come.

Do colors really matter here? The answer is: Yes, they do. The colors of medication are of great importance to both producers and consumers in several ways. Color may be used to identify a particular manufacturer or drug; in a highly competitive market, pharmaceutical companies seek innovative unique color and shape configuration to enhance the identity of their products.

Since it has a significant role in transforming a plain white pill into a brand image that brings millions of dollars to the producing company, the color of a drug is as heavily researched as its formulation. Moreover, drug marketers are aware that colors hold patients loyal to the branded product, even beyond its patent date, and thus protect it from generic competition.

Selecting colors for medications is not a haphazard process, though. Color-coding is the systematic, standardized application of a color system that aims at classifying and identifying drugs that fall within the same pharmacologic class(1). This system allows consumers to link between particular colors and their specific functions.

For instance, many researches discussed the use of medication color codes to communicate hazard levels; for example, red can be used to represent highly hazardous drugs, or as an alarming color reminding the elderly to take their heart medication. Some institutions concerned with safe medication practices recommend using black-capped packages for drugs containing potassium chloride, because of the high potential risks of misusing or confusing them with other medications.

Other technical issues are also considered when deciding how a capsule coating should look like. Some medical formulations necessitate opaque capsules to protect them from light, infrared and/or ultra violet radiations. Others need them to increase the stability of ingredients and decrease the formation of free radicals(2), which keeps the medication effective for a longer time. Drugs with oily fills are also recommended to have opaque coatings as it keeps them from becoming rancid.

Ancient Romans stated that people “eat with their eyes first”; this applies to medication, although we do not technically eat them. Colored medications have powerful synesthetic effects that help make them appealing to patients, especially when these colors are associated with smell and/or taste. For example, a pink syrup would definitely be more appealing to a child than a dull one, as it brings about an image of strawberry juice.

Just give it a thought: How do you think a grey capsule would taste or smell like: smoky or fruity? What about a pink one: Sweet or sour? A team of researchers at the University of Bombay, in India, conducted a survey of 600 people to study how the color of a medicine influences patients' perception of it. The results showed that red and pink are favored over other colors.

Fourteen percent of surveyed people think that pink tablets taste sweeter than red, and that yellow ones are salty; eleven percent think white and blue tablets taste bitter, and ten percent believed orange ones are sour. The purpose of the survey was to further emphasize the role of the sensory elements of a medication in creating positive perceptions that complement its medical attributes.

Medications are more likely to provide better effects if their colors correspond with the intended result. A calm blue pill would do great for a good night’s sleep, while a lime green one would not for nausea. Also, if a pleasantly-looking drug makes a patient believe it will achieve the desired results, he/she are more likely to receive greater benefits from it.

This fact makes the colors of medication important; in Medicine, every factor that would positively contribute to making patients more faithful to taking medication is considered crucial in recovery. That is why, on both the medical and commercial levels, pharmaceutical companies should make smart decisions regarding appropriate color combinations to give the medicine a boost, improve its effect and even probably reduce its side effects.

Another major role the colors of drugs play is reducing medical errors associated with misidentifying the correct medications or doses. Three-quarters of the people questioned at the University of Bombay survey stated that the color of their tablets helps them easily remember the exact medications to take.

Medical prescription drug errors by doctors, pharmacists or patients is a major hazard that accounts for a countless number of deaths annually. Hence, distinctly colored medications are highly appreciated for preventing patients, especially the elderly who take various medications, from taking the wrong pills by mistake, for such visual cues serve as their last defense mechanism.

Similarly, colored drugs can be life-saving in cases of emergency when each moment is precious. While patients are unable to communicate verbally the name of the drug that would save their life, distinguishing red tablets from others of different colors, would be easier for them than distinguishing a white tablet from others of the same color.

Medications are a necessary evil, no doubt; though nobody wants to take them, nobody can really do without them. Being a source of hazard, though, people should be very cautious when dealing with them; it is here where color interferes to make these groups of interacting chemicals more appealing and safer to use.


  1. Pharmacologic Classes are classes into which medications are grouped according to the organ or system on which they act and/or their therapeutic and chemical characteristics.
  2. Free Radicals are atoms containing at least one unpaired electron, therefore remaining unstable and highly reactive, seeking to bond with surrounding atoms, usually leading to disturbance.


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