How are color coding systems used in pharmaceutical labeling?

To maintain standardization within the pharmaceutical industry, a uniform color coding system segments medication to enhance processes for both medical professionals and consumers. After being developed in line with the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), the nationwide system has been particularly effective in improving patient safety.

As a general rule, the recommended color codes for new entrants to the market are as follows:

  • Adrenergic agonist combinations - Light green
  • Adrenergic agonists - Purple
  • Anti-infectives - Tan
  • Anti-inflammatory, non-steroidal - Gray 
  • Anti-inflammatory, steroids - Pink
  • Anti-inflammatory, immunomodulators - Olive green
  • Beta-blocker combinations - Dark blue
  • Beta-blockers- Yellow
  • Carbonic anhydrase inhibitors - Orange
  • Cytotoxic - Black
  • Miotics- Dark green
  • Mydriatics and cycloplegics - Red
  • Prostaglandin analogues - Turquoise

Using a uniform color-coding system, allows patients to distinguish the correct drugs within their medication cabinet, minimizing the risk of accidental misuse. This method has been shown to reduce serious events of health concerns or side effects off the back of the failure to differentiate between drugs, allowing users to correctly group and identify their prescription medication.

Although this system can never guarantee a complete success rate, the progression of the system means standardization is improving over time. The colors used have been carefully selected using Pantone's that provide enough contrast to avoid accidental confusion between two products of a similar nature. With limited color options being available, governing bodies researched the best coding system to suit common prescribing patterns and thus maximize consumer safety.

As the industry advances and new drugs become available on the market, the guidelines as we know them may develop to keep up with the industry. Whether new colors are added to create a new class of drug or new legislation means all providers are legally required to conform to the same color coding system, the process is expected to be streamlined for maximum efficiency.