How to Identify Unknown Pills (2024)

Did you find a pill on the floor and aren't sure what it is? Or maybe you just picked up your new prescription from the pharmacist and want to confirm it's the right drug. There are ways a pill can be identified by imprint code, color, or shape. This can ensure that you don't mistakenly take the wrong medication, take it the wrong way, or end up throwing out a prescription because you don't know what it is,

This article explains simple ways to identify pills, tablets, and capsules by using online resources and tools.

How to Identify Unknown Pills (1)

Pill Attributes

Unless the drug is a good counterfeit, the identification process is very straightforward. By law, every pill, tablet, or capsule approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must look unique from all others. This is done specifically to make identifying each pill easier.

A pill's attributes are related to:

  • Imprint code
  • Shape
  • Color
  • Form
  • Scoring

Imprint Code

Each type of medication will also be imprinted with a unique code. These codes can include a combination of numbers and letters or the name of the drug. In some cases, you might also see a logo.

Some of the letters and numbers can be hard to distinguish, especially on very small pills. If needed, use a magnifying glass.

Shape

Medication comes in all sorts of shapes. You might be most familiar with round or oblong pills and capsules. However, some medication is unusually shaped in the form of squares, rectangles, diamonds, triangles, pentagons, hexagons, heptagons, and octagons.

Color

Each type of pill has a standard color. Some are very familiar like brown Advil tablets or blue Viagra pills.

Capsules, pills, tablets, and caplets do not need to be one solid color, though. Pills might be one color on one side and a different color on the other side, or capsules might be made up of two different colored pieces. Pills and caplets might also have a colored pattern such as specks of red on a solid white background.

Different forms of a medication might come in different colors. For instance, it might be white in pill form and green in capsule form.

Form

The form refers to whether the medication is a tablet, capsule, or other type of oral medication.

Scoring

Pills may have scores, which are like light lines cut into them. There may be one, multiple, or none, depending on the medication. They can appear with the imprint code or on the reverse side.

Tools to Help Identify Pills

Once you have identified these elements of the drug in question, you can use a number of online tools to find out which medication you're holding.

Options include:

  • MedSnap: With this iPhone app, you can identify a pill by taking a photo of it.
  • Poison Control Pill Identifier: This National organization offers an interactive search tool that lets you find a medication-based imprint code, shape and color, or drug name.
  • FDA's Drug Identification: The Food and Drug Administration will identify a pill if you email them a picture of it.
  • Medscape Pill Identifier: This site is aimed at healthcare professionals, but offers a free online search tool that you can use to find medication based on attributes.

Inability to Identify Pills

In some instances, the tools and services above may not be able to recognize the pill you have. Most likely, this is because it's not an FDA-approved drug. This means that you may be looking at an illegal drug, a counterfeit, or even an alternative remedy.

You may want to take it to your pharmacist to ask for help. Never take any medication you cannot positively identify.

What to Do With Unused Pills

If you can't identify a pill and, thus, cannot take it, do not just let the medication sit on your shelf. Whether it's an over-the-counter pill or prescription treatment, leaving unused medication around the house is unsafe and unnecessary.

Disposal

You will need to dispose of the unused drugs. However, do not just toss them in the trash. It could be found and consumed by a person or an animal, which could make them ill.

Do not flush unused medication down the toilet because it then pollutes drinking water or natural bodies of water, which can affect fish, plants, and animals.

Follow proper disposal methods to safely get rid of unknown pills. If your community offers a drug take-back program, bring medication there on the designated day. You may also have a local U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) collection site near you. Use the DEA online location service to find a controlled substance disposal location.

If you're unable to take medication to one of these collection sites, check with your pharmacy. They may be able to take back any unused medication to dispose of it.

Summary

It's not uncommon to have a medication and not know what the pill or capsule is for. A number of online tools and services are available to help you identify medication based on the imprint code, color, and shape.

Never take any medication you cannot identify. And follow recommended guidelines for disposing of unused medication in a way that won't affect other people or the environment.

3 Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21.

  2. U.S. Geological Survey. Pharmaceuticals in water.

  3. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Where and how to dispose of unused medicines.

By Trisha Torrey
Trisha Torrey is a patient empowerment and advocacy consultant. She has written several books about patient advocacy and how to best navigate the healthcare system.

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How to Identify Unknown Pills (2024)

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