Posted on June 27, 2017

The colour panacea, why pill colours help our health

Imagine you’ve just burned your self, you really need soothing cream to take the pain away. So what colour is your imaginary cream? How good does it feel when it is white, no would it do the same job if it came out of the tube in red. Given the choice which soothing balm would you trust. You probably have a favourite choice even if it’s clinically proved that they both work just as well. If you don’t agree then offer the same choice to your scalded screaming child. Multiple trials, including many with placebos, others with active drugs, show that patients’ colour-effect associations can impact a drug’s actual effectiveness by measuring physical signs like heart rate and blood pressure. So even if it is just in our head if has an affect on the effect.

Pharmaceutical companies are well aware of these often emotional associations and carry out extensive related research when developing new products or even re-branding old ones. Here are some of their findings. Apart from the incredibly successful drug Viagra, generally blue pills act best as sedatives. Red and orange are stimulants. Sunshine coloured yellows make the most effective antidepressants, while green reduces anxiety and white is used to sooth pain.  What would you think if you were prescribed black or grey pills? Brighter colours and even embossed brand names further strengthen these effects. A bright yellow pill with the name on its surface, for example, may have a stronger effect than a dull yellow pill without it. A novel way of measuring a brands strength.

 Cultural variances are often a reason why the same drug may appear quite different in separate countries. When researchers take the users culture into account things get a bit more complicated.  An odd finding is that, the sedative power of blue doesn’t work on Italian men. The scientists who discovered this anomaly assume it is due to the ‘Azzuri’ effect’ as Italy’s national football team play in striking Azzure blue so they associate the colour with passion and the drama of a football match, actually getting their adrenaline pumping. Also yellow’s connotations do change in Africa, where it’s associated with the better anti-malarial drugs, as eye whites can take on a yellow tinge when a person is suffering from this disease.  Hard to establish such things back in HQ in Basel, without input from the market.

Colour also has more a really practical role in drug manufacturing. In light-sensitive products, tints can lend opacity, keeping active ingredients stable. Colour, together with shape, also aids drug recognition. This ensures that drugs aren’t mixed up during production or packaging, a nightmare scenario that would have terrible repercussions for patient safety as well as brand reputation and big Pharma pockets. And colour’s role in drug recognition is equally important at the patient level, preventing accidental overdose by helping patients on multiple drugs to recognise each one. This is most relevant to the elderly, who are often on multiple drugs and may be dealing with complications from eyesight degeneration or dementia. It’s also a bonus to healthcare workers, who have to give out lots of different drugs in a short space of time. Colours role here shouldn’t be taken lightly; at one time almost 5% of all UK’s hospital patients receive incorrect medication.

Drug colours also are vital in identifying which drugs have been taken in an overdose situation. Then a mixture of healthcare professional and Police need to establish the type of drugs taken often from leftover packaging, unused pills or from relatives at the end of a phone. here is a handy drug identification guide used by UK Police.

But colour-effect associations can also backfire. While a drug’s hue acts as a mental imprint, reminding people to take their medications, this also means that patients are also likely to stop their medication regimen if drug colours are changed. This is one of the reasons why drug manufacturers ferociously guard their designs and colours with patents, and generic companies try so hard to resemble them. They are just as keen to ‘copy’ as the actual makers of fake medicine.

Drug packaging and the actual size of the medication is also important in giving users certain effect expectations.  But that’ s another story.

Posted by Neale Gilhooley

Further reading

The Atlantic article  – The Power of Drug Colour (October 2014)

Design Taxi article – Healing Power Of Colour  (July 17)