Medications allow us to overcome illness, power through pain and transform some fatal diseases into merely chronic ones. But no medicine is without some risk.
From mild stomachaches to fatal liver damage, medications can have real and lasting side effects that too many people take for granted. In fact, one study found that an estimated 128,000 Americans die each year as a result of taking medications as prescribed. That excludes prescription errors, overdose and misuse.
Before we put too much faith in the power of pills, powders and supplements, it’s important to understand the side effects of everything we pop into our mouths.
The wrong combination of medications can turn relatively innocuous medicines into dangerous ones.
Cholesterol-lowering statins, for example, when combined with antibiotics such as clarithromycin or erythromycin, may increase statin level and lead to muscle or kidney damage.
If you are being seen by multiple specialists, be sure you bring a list of medications, or even better bring in all of your prescriptions and over-the-counter medicines to each appointment. Physicians, particularly if they are not in the same hospital system or medical group might not have access to all your relevant information. Working with your pharmacist can also help you to reduce your risk of ingesting dangerous combinations.
Don’t forget that medications don’t just interact with prescription drugs. Over-the-counter medicines, dietary supplements, and even some foods can negatively impact a medicine’s effect or efficacy on the body. Grapefruit reduces the efficacy of certain thyroid medication and can raise the level of certain heart condition medications in the blood. Meanwhile certain antacids can prevent antibiotics from being properly absorbed into the bloodstream.
Supplements and Over-the-Counter Medicines
Biotin for your hair and nails. Echinacea for that tickle in the back of your throat. Apple cider vinegar for improved metabolism. Whatever you ingest for medicinal purposes, tell your doctor and pharmacist, no matter how basic the supplement seems. Vitamin C, for instance, could reduce the efficacy of certain chemotherapies, and many supplements carry side effects that are not well known.
The same goes for over-the-counter (OTC) medications. Even baby aspirin can carry a risk of intestinal bleeding for patients with certain conditions. OTCs can also exacerbate certain medical conditions. For example, if you have high blood pressure, some over-the-counter cold remedies can prove dangerous. Decongestants that relieve nasal stuffiness by reducing swelling in the nose can also narrow blood vessels in other parts of the body as well, which can increase blood pressure.
Some cholesterol drugs have been known to impair memory. At least one high blood pressure medicine can affect your sense of taste. And I have treated patients who didn’t realize hypertension medicine was the culprit behind their chronic cough. Sometimes the symptoms seem so removed from the drugs they are taking that patients don’t make the connection.
Who, after all, would think that an erectile dysfunction medicine could lead to blurred vision? Or that a Parkinson’s medication could lead to behaviors like compulsive gambling? It sounds too far-fetched to associate these turns of events to medication, but by consulting a physician, you can determine whether a medicine’s benefits outweigh the risk.
We all respond to drugs differently – and that response changes as we age. Researchers are working on developing genetic tests to determine how a drug will affect you individually. This could lead to more targeted therapies and fewer interactions and side effects – eventually.
Until then, be careful about ingesting a new fad supplement or loading up on prescriptions without consulting all your doctors and pharmacist. Medication can be incredibly effective at lessening symptoms and curing conditions. But before you start combining or taking new drugs and OTC medications/supplements, it’s important to include safety in the mix.
Dr. Nguyen is a family physician, based in Costa Mesa.