Noxzema and Eczema - How Medications Are Named

Expert Q&A

A Child Using Advair
A child using Advair - a name that makes it easy to understand that it is for asthma.. Photo by Vincent Iannelli, MD

Question. My son has eczema and we have struggled to find a good lotion that works on his skin. A friend to try Noxzema and that it was actually originally created to treat kids with eczema. Is that true? Gil, Portland, Oregon.

Answer. Looking at the name - Noxzema - it is easy to see why people would think that there is an association between Noxzema and eczema, but the ingredient list includes a lot of things that you would think might irritate a child's skin if they had eczema, including fragrance, camphor, and menthol.

Especially during an active eczema flare, camphor and menthol might burn or irritate your child's skin.

Of course, you could always try it and see how it works for your child. Although you might think that it is an urban legend, the official 'history of Noxzema' from their website states that 'the inspiration for the name Noxzema came from a satisfied customer who exclaimed, "You knocked my eczema."' It was originally marketed as a sunburn remedy, though.

Naming Medicines

What's in a name?

Maybe a rose would smell as sweet, but would a pediatrician prescribe less Adderall if it had a different name?

How do medicines get their names?

You would think that the name would have something to do with what the medication does, but that often isn't the case. Can you tell what Vantin does by its name? How about Zadiator?

It used to be easy to understand a medication's name. Take for example penicillin, which was originally derived from the Penicillium mold.

Or Lasix, which supposedly got its name because it lasts six hours.

Most drugs are likely named because it is thought to help with its marketing.

Take these names for medicines used to treat ADHD:

  • ADDerall ~ attention deficit disorder (ADD)
  • Concerta ~ helps you concentrate?
  • Focalin ~ helps you focus?

I'm not sure what other ADHD medicines, like Quillivant XR, Ritalin, Metadate, or Strattera are supposed to mean, though.

Asthma and Allergy Medication Names

Asthma medicines also usually have names that help you understand what they are used for, such as:

  • Singulair
  • Advair
  • Aerobid ~ sounds just like air-o-bid
  • Azmacort ~ sounds like asthma-cort
  • Maxair
  • Pulmicort ~ pulm is derived from the latin pulmo or lung.
  • Zolair ~ asthma

Other asthma medications use derivatives of the suffix -vent, which comes from the latin ventus or wind. These include Flovent, Sevevent, Proventil, and Ventolin.

Allergy medicines usually don't make as much sense. What does Allegra mean? Or Claritin and Zyrtec? I guess they are supposed to describe how you might feel when you are taking them:

  • Allegra ~ from the latin alacer, which means cheerful. Or maybe it is from the words other meaning, brisk or fast, which is supposed to mean that it works fast?
  • Claritin ~ is it supposed to sound like clarity, to mean that you will be thinking clearly if you take it, unlike what happens when you get drowsy taking older antihistamine medications, like Benadryl?
  • Zyrtec ???
  • Clarinex ~ the next Claritin

More About Names

Of course, these naming tricks weren't all about medications. We also see it in baby formula names:

  • Similac - similar to lactation
  • Enfamil - infant milk

But does it matter what drug companies name their new medicines?

Probably not.

  • Prevacid ~ gastroesophageal or acid reflux
  • Pepcid ~ gastroesophageal or acid reflux

Nexium is a very popular medicine for reflux, even without a catchy name.

It does make it easier for patients to understand what the medication is for when the name makes sense, though. If you are taking multiple medicines, it can help to remember that one medicine is for asthma with a name like Advair.

Most importantly, I think that drug companies need to avoid creating new drugs that have a name similar to one that is already being used. When you have two medicines like Zyrtec and Zantac, it is easy for doctors, pharmacists, and patients to get confused.

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