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WHO has a constitutional mandate to "develop, establish and promote international standards with respect to biological, pharmaceutical and similar products".

The World Health Organization collaborates closely with INN experts and national nomenclature committees to select a single name of worldwide acceptability for each active substance that is to be marketed as a pharmaceutical. To avoid confusion, which could jeopardize the safety of patients, trade-marks should neither be derived from INNs nor contain common stems used in INNs.


An International Nonproprietary Name (INN) is an official generic and non-proprietary name given to a pharmaceutical drug. INNs make communication more precise by providing a unique standard name for each active ingredient, to avoid prescribing errors. The INN system has been coordinated by the World Health Organization (WHO) since 1953.

Having unambiguious standard names for each drug is important because a drug may be sold by many different brand names, or a branded medication may contain more than one drug. For example, the branded medications Celexa, Celapram and Citrol all contain the same active ingredient: citalopram; and the branded preparation Lemsip contains two active ingredients: paracetamol and phenylephrine.

Each drug's INN is unique but may contain a word stem that is shared with other drugs of the same class, for example the beta blocker drugs propranolol and atenolol share the -olol suffix, and the benzodiazepine drugs lorazepam and diazepam share the -azepam suffix.

The WHO issues INNs in English, Latin, French, Russian, Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese, and a drug's INNs are often cognate across most or all of the languages, with minor spelling or pronunciation differences, for example: "paracetamol" (en) "paracetamolum" (la), "paracétamol" (fr) and "парацетамол" (ru). An established INN is known as an rINN (recommended INN), while a name that is still being considered is called a pINN (proposed INN).

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