With record numbers of patients suffering or dying as a result of prescription drug side effects, many wonder why medications that are considered dangerous are allowed on the market. The truth is that nearly all medications, both over-the-counter and prescription, have some kind of undesirable and sometimes dangerous aftereffects, from muscle aches to death. Even with the federal regulations that oversee these drugs, side effects are inevitable. For federal regulators, though, the benefits sometimes outweigh the dangers.
Each year, about 4.5 million Americans visit their doctor’s office or the emergency room because of adverse prescription drug side effects. A startling 2 million other patients who are already hospitalized suffer the ill effects of prescription medications annually, and this when they should be under the watchful eye of medical professionals.
All kinds of medications, from those that are considered “all natural” to those that are chemically produced in a laboratory, carry some sort of aftereffect. Even though prescription drugs are supposed to undergo stringent testing and clinical trials, federal drug regulators allow a level of side effects. In addition, most side effects vary from person to person, depending on the dosage, the patient’s disease, age, weight, gender, ethnicity and overall health.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which oversees all new drug applications, depends on clinical trials conducted by the drug companies to determine the drug’s therapeutic advantages and disadvantages. The FDA is supposed to only approve drugs that have greater benefits than dangers.
Once the drug is on the market, the FDA’s postmarket surveillance program, called MedWatch, comes into play. This voluntary program allows healthcare professionals to report the adverse effects they see in patients taking the drug. In addition, drug companies are expected to report problems.
Unfortunately, it’s a system that is ripe for abuse.
Serious Side Effects
In addition to common side effects, many drugs cause dangerous side effects. If a drug has numerous problems, the FDA can add warnings to the drug’s label, including its stringent black-box warning. In rare cases, the drug is recalled or removed from the market.
From deadly cancer to fatal heart attacks, some prescription drugs have been known to cause either slow or immediate death. Sometimes prescription drugs such as penicillin stimulate allergic reactions that cause anything from itching to an anaphylactic response, which can lead to death. In other cases, a drug can cause a deadly heart attack or stroke, which has been seen in patients who take the drugs Avandia or Actos to treat type 2 diabetes.
Other drugs may cause patients to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily consider, including suicide. Drugs such as Accutane and some antidepressants have been linked to suicidal thoughts or actions.
Many drugs can be physically and emotionally debilitating, including causing total or partial paralysis or severe pain. This includes headaches, stomachaches, joint and muscle pain and decreased control over bodily functions.
Sometimes these side effects are caused by the drug’s numbing effect on the area of the brain responsible for pain perception. Lipitor, a commonly prescribed cholesterol medication, is linked to unexpected muscle pain and loss of muscle coordination.
Problems related to the heart, including heart attacks, congestive heart failure, lifelong heart damage and cardiomyopathy, have been linked to many prescription drugs. Sometimes, the drugs cause an increase in water-weight gain, which causes heart failure or a heart attack. Such is the case with Avandia and its sister drug, Actos. Other drugs, including the painkiller Celebrex, have been proven to be so risky that doctors refuse to prescribe them for long-term use.
In addition to these drugs, studies show that testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) drugs like AndroGel may double the risk of heart attack in men.
Described as the rapid loss of brain function due to a blood flow disturbance, strokes have been linked to several kinds of prescription drugs. In some cases, the drugs cause blood clots to form.
When these clots move through the body, they can block the blood flow to the brain. Some antipsychotic drugs, including drugs used in Alzheimer’s treatment such as Risperdal, are linked to strokes. Other drugs, including the painkiller Vioxx, are also linked to stroke.
Probably one of the most shocking and overwhelming side effects of prescription drugs is cancer. Perhaps that’s because most people spend their lives avoiding known carcinogens, such as cigarette smoking. When patients learn that their prescription drugs can be carcinogenic, they feel angry and misled.
One of the most shocking medication-cancer connections came when Tamoxifen, a drug used to treat breast cancer, was found to increase the risk of uterine cancer. In addition, Actos, a drug that is supposed to alleviate diabetes symptoms, is linked to an 80 percent increased risk of bladder cancer in those taking the drug two years or longer.
Some drugs have been linked to other significant side effects, including losing the sense of taste, amnesia, sight loss and hallucinations. For all patients, the best way to combat all of these problems is to carefully read the drug’s label and ask the doctor or pharmacist detailed questions.
Common Side Effects
Possibly the most common side effects of any prescription drug are gastrointestinal issues, including nausea, constipation and diarrhea, because most drugs go through the digestive system to be absorbed. Other common aftereffects include drowsiness, pain and skin reactions.
Read about specific side effects:
While dizziness may not seem like a serious side effect, it can have grave consequences. For elderly patients or those already unsteady on their feet, random dizziness can cause a fall that could lead to broken bones.
For the elderly, especially those who are already battling other medical problems, a broken hip can take a deadly toll. Because dizziness is a common side effect of most prescription drugs, patients should be acutely aware of any vertigo-like feelings.
While nausea and vomiting aren’t considered deadly side effects, they can cause a cascade of medical problems, especially in the elderly or those already weakened by a disease. The resulting dehydration, internal bleeding and esophageal rupture can result in death. Chemotherapy drugs, which are aimed at treating cancer, are known to cause severe nausea and vomiting.
- Barry, P. (2011, September 1). Prescription Drug Side Effects. AARP. Retrieved from http://www.aarp.org/health/drugs-supplements/info-09-2011/prescription-drug-side-effects.html
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2012) Medwatch.
- Prescription for Trouble. (January 2006). ConsumerReports.org. Retrieved from http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/health/drugs/index.htm
- Dangerous Prescription. (2003, November 13). PBS Frontline. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/prescription/etc/synopsis.html