Mental Health Medication – Concerns and Ethics

One of the most common questions about mental health problems is whether people need medication to deal with them, or whether they can be simply dealt with through therapy. Mental health problems can range from the not so severe – such as mild anxiety – to more severe problems like long-term depression. There are some that see medication as a short term, quick fix solution – it will give relief fast, but it doesn’t really teach one to deal with the heart of the problem – hence the suggestion of therapy and counselling. Yet there are those that remain convinced that while therapy re-educates the patient and deals with mental health difficulties on a long term basis, sometimes medication provides a greater level of immediacy in providing a solution, that its role cannot be denied. Should I take medication for _______” is one of the most frequent queries received. The ideal solution is probably a combination of medication and therapy, whilst gradually reducing the level of medication and therapy as the patient progresses.

Medication can be useful. For example, for those with paralysing anxiety, medication can minimise the stress and anxiety placed upon an individual by these stressors until the level of anxiety is at a comfortable and manageable level, enabling one to live their daily life while keeping their anxiety at a level they can control. However, for individuals with a severe mental health condition such as schizophrenia, the use of medication may be necessary in order to attain a level of mental stability and hence safety.

But medication is not just for a stabilising calm influence. For those, however, for whom facing the day is a burden, and who remain unable to get out of bed in the morning because depression has stolen all motivation, mental health medication can provide a jumpstart, an impetus to face the day. Certain people may benefit from taking psychotropic medication. For example, a study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health found that some individuals who were prescribed the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) Paxil, because they experienced moderate to severe depression, experienced positive changes in mood, together with significant improvements in depressive symptoms. There was a marked decrease in the level of neuroticism and a similar increase in extroversion. These effects occured over a period of eight weeks and were nearly equivalent to the changes most adults experience in the course of a lifetime.

According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, human beings must satisfy more basic needs such as food and shelter before they attend to more self-actualising needs. It is difficult for most people to focus on avenues of self-growth when they are in crisis or struggling with anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions. In some cases the polarisation can even lead them further into depression. In this instance, medication can support the psychotherapy process, and a stabilised person can progress further in psychotherapy having had the needs at the lower end of the hierarchy addressed. For example, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that cognitive behavioural therapy combined with targeted medication tends to lead to significant improvement of attention deficit hyperactivity symptoms in adults. And in the long term, of course, a common outcome of successful psychotherapy is the reduction or elimination of the need for medications, so medication can be viewed as a temporary measure.

And while we have to recognise its benefits for the short term, we have to realise that medication can be harmful for some individuals if taken over a prolonged period. Most, if not all, drugs come with potential risks and side effects. Some can be minimal and tolerable while others carry disadvantages best considered as trade-offs. The side effects range from physical ones to emotional and psychological ones. Physical side effects range from dizziness, drowsiness, or changes in appetite, and/or weight gain. Emotional and psychological side effects may range from mood swings, disinterest in activities, or emotional numbness and a lack of empathy. Prescribed over a long term, antipsychotics may cause permanent damage by leading to conditions such as tardive dyskinesia or Parkinsonism, and may even cause death. The death may not be triggered by physical caused, but by mental irrational thinking. A 2005 article in the Harvard Mental Health Letter spelt out in detail the increasing awareness of risks associated with SSRI antidepressants, such as a potential increase in suicidal thinking and behaviours for adults and children under 24 years of age. One could, however, speculate if the suicidal thoughts were triggered by the medication directly, or whether it was the prospect of lifetime medication without an apparent cure that caused these feelings of hopelessness. Whichever you look at it, it is fair to say that there are people who will benefit from taking these medications, but also people who may experience lasting harm as a result of antidepressant use. The use of medication remains a double-edged sword.

But there are lines of thought that ascribe that medication is not always a necessary process. While medication may be effective for treating certain conditions, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Vanderbilt University suggested that, over a period of 16 months, cognitive therapy was a more effective means of preventing a relapse into depression than antidepressants alone. Research findings published in the Journal of the Amercan Medical Association found that while antidepressants were helpful for those experiencing severe depression, milder to moderate forms of depression derived more benefit from other treatment options, such as therapy. A 2010 article published in Newsweek arrived at the same conclusions, suggesting that, for some individuals, antidepressants are little more than a placebo.

To summarise what I’ve said so far: mental health is best addressed through a combination of therapy and medication. Severe forms of mental depression, which require more immediate intervention, would benefit from prescription drugs and therapy, while therapy alone may be sufficient enough for milder forms. Medication provides short-term benefit, especially in higher forms of depression, but we must be cautious over its long-term use because it can have side effects.

Medication can interfere with the emotions as well as the psychotherapy process. One of the most common side effects of psychotropic medication is difficulty feeling certain emotions, perhaps even a lack of empathy, once enough doseage of a drug accumulates in a person’s system. When we consume too much of a drug that is meant to limit our nerves, for example, many people complain of losing the feelings they used to have, report a reduction in their ability to laugh or cry, or experience a decrease in libido. These are the effects of medicines with a calming influence. Other side effects extend to one’s sexuality and love relationships, such as diminished sexual interest. Medication can also limit hyperactivity in the brain, acting as an emotional relaxant, but this slows emotional processing for some, and in doing so, covering up underlying issues and causing the psychotherapy process to be slowed down. A possible consequence of taking too much medication and becoming numb to feelings is the increased likelihood that a person will not become conscious of the emotional or somatic burdens which can cause of stress and suicidal feelings. It may be stretching things a little, but if you view medication as a substance, just like we view alcohol – too much consumption leads to physical health problems, as well as a capacity for clear thought processing – we can get a better idea of how the prescription of medication might not always be a clear-cut issue.

Proponents of a little- or no-medication approach to mental health point out that many emotional and mental health issues are not reducible to a biochemical imbalance. Life events — what happens to and around us – can impact on our mental health, and because medications do not change how people relate psychologically to their experiences, medication alone cannot “fix” all psychological issues. In fact, the temporal masking of life circumstances by medication is probably what induces people to overdose in the first place, taking more medication to completely obviate one to one’s surroundings. Treatment with medication alone can be like stitching up a bullet wound without taking the bullet out first – dealing with the effects without dealing with the cause. It is one of the main criticisms of the medical profession.

Furthermore, an over-simplification of what causes depression has led to the development of anti-depressant drugs that are actually designed to treat or minimise stress. These medications are often of little use because they have been tested on animals, and for the laboratory animals such as rats chronic stress does not cause depression. Psychotherapy, on the other hand, is often able to discover and treat some of the mental health issues that may contribute to depression, such as psychological trauma and anxiety. For example, a 1995 Consumer Reports study shows that some individuals experiencing mental health issues were significantly helped by psychotherapy. The study found that long-term therapy had, in general, the most beneficial effect, and that treatment with therapy alone was no less effective than treatment with medication and psychotherapy.

In an article “Mind over Meds,” which appeared in a 2010 issue of The New York Times Magazine, Dr. Daniel Carlat, a psychopharmacologist, found that the individuals he treated responded better to a combination of treatment with psychotherapy and medication together than they did purely with medication alone. The provision of counselling in addition to medication helped them to be better able to understand the true nature of their concerns. His findings are supported by research that therapy can stimulate the growth of neurons and synaptic connections between neurons. However, medication for depression, anxiety, and other emotional problems do not stimulate the brain; instead they dampen the brain’s mental activity. Therapy is capable of healing core problems and facilitating long-term changes, and why medication alone cannot. But medication is important in areas where the mental thoughts of the individual needs to be reduced to a lower level of activity.

Psychotropic drugs are prescribed to treat a variety of mental health issues when those issues cause significant impairment to healthy functioning. They work by changing or balancing the amount of important chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters. The reduction or increase of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine have shown better mood improvements in some individuals. The ideal s to achieve a tolerable balance of these chemicals in order for the individual to attain a healthy life. Psychotropic drugs are usually prescribed by a psychiatrist, a psychiatric nurse practitioner (PMHNP), or a primary care physician

According to the WHO, one in four individuals will experience a mental health issue at some point in their lives. Depression and anxiety are among the most common issues, and these issues can affect people regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, or background. Researchers cannot point to the triggers of mental health impairment, but they can be attributable to environmental factors, genetics, traumatic events or serious injuries and result in psychological symptoms that persist for years.

As we have seen before, for some individuals psychotropic drugs are often not enough are best used as a supplement, and not a replacement, to therapy. Social support from family and friends, structured therapy, lifestyle changes – all leading to a change of environment – can all be important factors in the recovery process. But in some severe mental health issues may require inpatient rehabilitation before the person experiencing them can return to everyday life.

Certain individuals who are prescribed psychiatric medications may prefer not to take them, or they find that these medications do not improve their symptoms enough to outweigh any side effects or risks. Before you take any medication, it is always advisable to speak with your GP or seek specialist advice.

One major cause of concern regarding mental health and medication is the practice of prescribing medications that were originally developed for adults to children. The increase in diagnoses of psychiatric conditions in children – bipolar in particular – has led to an increase in the amount of children who take psychiatric medications. Many of which have only been fully tested in adults, and children take them in smaller doses, but the long-term impact of medication, as well as the effect on children who have yet to reach puberty needs to be examined.

Several different types of medications are used to treat mental health conditions. These include antipsychotics and anti-depressants.

Antipsychotics: These medications are most often prescribed for the treatment of psychotic issues such as schizophrenia. These drugs fall into two categories, typical and atypical antipsychotics.

The brand name is listed first, and the active ingredient is in parentheses.

Typical antipsychotics include:
Thorazine (chlorpromazine)
Trilafon (perphenazine)
Stelazine (trifluoperazine)
Serentil (mesoridazine)
Prolixin (fluphenazine)
Navane (thiothixene)
Moban (molindone)
Mellaril (thioridazine)
Loxitane (loxapine)
Haldol (haloperidol)

Atypical antipsychotics include:
Abilify (aripiprazole)
Clozaril (clozapine)
Geodon (ziprasidone)
Risperdal (risperidone)
Seroquel (quetiapine)
Zyprexa (olanzapine)

Antidepressants are a broad category of psychotropic drugs used for treating depression. There are several different classifications of antidepressants:

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs): These medications gradually increase the amount of serotonin, a neurotransmitter, in the brain. Common SSRIs include:

Celexa (citalopram)
Lexapro (escitalopram)
Luvox (fluvoxamine)
Paxil (paroxetine)
Prozac (fluoxetine)
Zoloft (sertraline)

Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs): A less common variety of antidepressant drugs, MAOIs are often a last option with complex, treatment-resistant depression. Common MAOIs include:

Emsam (selegiline)
Marplan (isocarboxazid)
Nardil (phenelzine)
Parnate (tranylcypromine)

Tricyclics (TCAs): These older antidepressant medications have been pushed to the sidelines by newer, generally safer medications. Still, some people do not respond to the new antidepressants, so TCAs may be prescribed. Tricyclic medications include:

Anafranil (clomipramine)
Asendin (amoxapine)
Elavil (amitriptyline)
Norpramin (desipramine)
Pamelor (nortriptyline)
Sinequan (doxepin)
Surmontil (trimipramine)
Tofranil (imipramine)
Vivactil (protiptyline)

Selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs): These medications work by slowly increasing the amount of norepinephrine in the brain. Common SNRIs include:

Pristiq (desvenlafaxine)
Effexor (venlafaxine)
Cymbalta (duloxetine)

Antianxiety/antipanic medications: These medications are used to treat a variety of chronic and acute anxiety issues, from generalized anxiety to panic attacks. Antianxiety and antipanic medications on the market include:

Ativan (lorazepam)
BuSpar (buspirone)
Inderal (propranolol)
Klonopin (clonazepam)
Librium (chlordiazepoxide)
Serax (oxazepam)
Tenormin (atenolol)
Tranxene (clorazepate)
Valium (diazepam)
Xanax (alprazolam)

Stimulants: Typically, stimulants are prescribed to people with attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD). They help regulate disorganized thought processes. Psychomotor stimulants include:

Adderall (amphetamine and dextroamphetamine)
Dexedrine (dextroamphetamine)
Ritalin (methylphenidate)

Mood stabilisers: This category of psychotropic medication is typically used to treat intense, repeated shifts in a person’s mood, which may be common for those experiencing bipolar, schizophrenia, or borderline personality. Many mood stabiliser drugs are also commonly categorized as anticonvulsant medications.

Lamictal (lamotrigine)
Lithium

In 2013, the most prescribed psychotropic drugs in the United States (with the number of prescriptions written during the year) were:

Xanax (alprazolam), 48.5 million
Zoloft (sertraline), 41.4 million
Celexa (citalopram), 39.4 million
Prozac (fluoxetine), 28.3 million
Ativan (lorazepam), 27.9 million
Desyrel (trazodone HCL), 26.2 million
Lexapro (escitalopram), 24.9 million
Cymbalta (duloxetine), 18.6 million
Wellbutrin XL (bupropion HCL XL), 16.1 million
Effexor XR (venlafaxine HCL ER), 15.8 million

Should one be dismayed by the number of prescriptions in a YEAR alone, as well as the various types of medications available? However you feel about them, they all point to mental health as a significant issue, one that we cannot ignore. We have, however, to cautiously consider that medications that seem appropriate at this time may not be at a later stage. Ultimately, it is best that we learn to function without additive medication in the long term, not just because of their side effects – but if we are being cynical, under pressures of financial cost, medical research may in time suggest that certain forms of mental health medication were inadequate in the first place, and if funding is withdrawn patients may find themselves dependent on medication that they have to make their own provisions for – or worryingly, do without.

And it would be unfortunately ironic if the concerns over provision for mental health became another life stressor.

Beta blockers and their impact on heart attack sufferers

 

Recent research suggests that the prescription of beta blockers for heart attack patients may not have the benefit ascribed to them.

In the UK, the prescription of beta blockers is routine for patients who have had a heart attack. There are two categories of patients – those who have had a heart attack, and those who have had a heart attack with heart failure, the latter of which is the more severe case. A heart attack involving heart failure is a complication in which the heart muscle has experienced damage and where proper function is compromised.

Beta blockers work by reducing the activity of the heart and lower blood pressure. In essence, the pressure on the heart is lessened by a reduced demand on it.

Current guidelines recommend that the first group of patients are prescribed beta blockers, while for those in the second group, who have experienced heart failure, beta blockers are mandatory.

The research investigated the effect of beta blockers on the first group, for whom beta blockers are recommended but not compulsory. The findings suggested that 95% of patients in the first group did not experience a significantly longer life span and beta blockers did not have any significant impact. There was no statistical difference in death rates within a year large enough to attribute to any positive impact of the beta blockers.

As the data involved tracking a very large sample size of 179,810 people, the results could be deemed to be fairly accurate.

So what the ramifications of this research?

The first is that the vast majority of the first group of heart attack patients are being over-prescribed beta blockers. Beta blockers, while reducing the workload of the heart, can induce side effects such as drowsiness and fatigue as a result of lower blood pressure. Patients may be experiencing these burdens on their health unnecessarily.

The second issue is that over-prescription causes an unnecessary burden on the NHS if it is prescribing drugs unnecessarily. Imagine a patient who has just had a heart operation. While he or she is recuperating in hospital, beta blockers are prescribed as part of the medication. Multiply that by over 100,000, and the result is an unnecessary annual cost to the NHS if the drugs that are needless and have no impact.

Furthermore, the use of drugs with no apparent benefit can, in the long run, only weaken the body’s immunity.

The findings of the survey, however, do not reflect on the impact of beta blockers on the second group of patients – those who have had a heart attack involving heart failure. Another outcome of the findings was the suggestion that treatment be more personalised in order to locate and target patients in the first group who would benefit from the prescription of beta blockers for heart attacks which did not involve heart failure.

Beta-blockers are prescription-only medicines, commonly referred to as POMS, which means they cannot be obtained over the counter. They must be prescribed by a GP or pharmacist. They work by blocking the action of hormones like adrenaline in order to reduce the activity of the heart.

Examples of commonly used beta-blockers include:

  • atenolol (Tenormin)
  • bisoprolol (Cardicor, Emcor)
  • carvedilol metoprolol (Betaloc, Lopresor)
  • nebivolol (Nebilet)
  • propranolol (Inderal)

The generic name which contains the active ingredient is named first, the brand name is in parentheses.

There are many types of beta-blockers and they may be used to treat symptoms such as angina, heart failure, atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat), heart attack or high blood pressure. Those are the more common uses of beta-blockers, also they can also be used for migraine or to treat an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism), anxiety, tremor, anxiety conditions or even glaucoma.

Beta-blockers, including beta-blocker eye drops, can interact with other medicines, and in doing so alter the effects of one of the medicines. Some of the more common medicines that can cause interference through interaction with beta-blockers include medicines such as anti-arrhythmics (used to control irregular heartbeats), antihypertensives (medicines for lowering blood pressure), antipsychotics, and clonidine, which is commonly used to treat high blood pressure and migraine.

While the most common side-effects of beta-blockers are dizziness and tiredness, other arising side-effects can include blurred vision, cold hands and feet, and slow heartbeat.

Less common symptoms may include sleep disturbance (insomnia), depression, impotence or libido.

The majority of beta-blockers are to be taken once a day, with the exception of certain beta-blockers that are used during pregnancy and the beta-blocker Sotalol, which is administered two or three times a day. The NHS estimates the annual cost of Sotalol per patient to be 77.09 a year.

On the face of it, the results of the research are pretty straightforward. But are they as almost too straightfoward, to warrant the question of why such research needed to be conducted in the first place?
One cannot blame the cynics for questioning what outcomes the research is meant to arrive at.

Let’s consider the matter in a different light. It is estimated that heart attack survivors have a higher risk of recurrent heart attacks or cardiac death, and 10% of heart attack sufferers die within two years. Only 50% of initial survivors are alive at 10 years.

It is not unreasonable to surmise that those who suffer initial heart attacks either experience mortality between the first and second year or develop recurrent attacks which push them to a compulsory prescription of beta-blockers.

Critics to the research point out that a fairer assessment on the effects of beta-blockers should have examined an extended time period of two years rather than one year. They also point out that the research should have focussed on how many heart attack sufferers, who did not have heart failure, and who then did not use beta-blockers, went on to develop recurrent heart attacks, or heart attacks that included heart failure, as it would be more indicative of the effectiveness of beta blockers.

So why did the findings choose to use the timeframe of a year?

The NHS makes baseline assessments on the cost effectiveness of medicines and treatments according to a scale of quality-adjusted life years, or QALYs. It weighs the cost of treatment against the number of years of significant benefit to the patient gained from the treatment. According to the NHS, a figure of twenty thousand pounds per QALY represents treatment that is value for money. In other words, if a treatment can extend and improve a patient’s life for a year, and costs under 20,000, it is worth it.

The NHS’s Regional Drug and Therapeutic Centre, based in Newcastle, gives the cost of beta blockers as between 10 and 512 pounds annually, depending on the type of beta-blocker required. While this falls well within the QALY threshold of 20,000 pounds, using the research findings that beta blockers have no significant impact on health within the first year allows it to scrap the cost of funding this treatment because beta-blockers supposedly offer no significant benefit. The research has focussed on a time period that cannot significantly examine the effectiveness of beta blockers.

Cynics suggest that the research is merely an attempt to reframe the data regarding beta-blockers in order to minimise the cost of healthcare in an NHS which is lacking in resources.

Medical research, is unfortunately often subservient to economics and often the research appears to be carried out to arrive at a pre-planned conclusion. Wasn’t it long ago, when the economic crisis was looming and the government was looking to raise tax on alcohol, that we were told a glass of red wine a day had health benefits? Yet when the NHS struggled years later and was overburdened by drunken citizens dialling emergency services the evidence peddled about red wine was to the contrary.

Risks of stomach bleeding increased by aspirin in over-75s

A recent study by researchers in Oxford in June this year suggested that taking aspirin daily may have led to higher incidences of bleeding in the over-75 age group.

BBC News reported that those in the over-75 age group taking daily aspirin as a precautionary measure after a stroke or heart attack were at a higher risk of stomach bleeds than had been previously conceived.

The Oxford Vascular Study was carried out by researchers from the University of Oxford and funded by the Wellcome Trust, Wolfson Foundation, British Heart Foundation, Dunhill Medical Trust, National Institute of Health Research (NIHR), and the NIHR Oxford Biomedical Research Centre.

The study aimed to assess the bleeding risk for people taking aspirin for the secondary prevention of cardiovascular events. In other words, the people in the research had already had a stroke or heart attack and were taking aspirin to try and prevent them having another. The follow-up period was for up to 10 years with the intention of seeing how many of them were admitted to hospital with bleeds.

Aspirin performs the function of a blood thinner and hence it is often given to people thought to be at risk from blood clots, which, if left unchecked, could trigger a heart attack or stroke. Unfortunately, a potential downside is that it can trigger bleeding in the digestive system or brain.

The researchers found that for under-75s taking aspirin, the annual risk of bleeding is around 1%. However, this risk factor is tripled for those over the age of 75. What was more disturbing was the bleeds were particularly associated with those of the stomach and upper digestive tract. 405 bleeding events required medical attention during the follow-up period, and of these, 187 of which were major bleeds. 40% of bleeds were in the upper digestive tract. The risk of disabling or fatal bleeding of the upper digestive tract was 10 times higher for over-75s compared with younger adults.

The findings of the research suggested that prescribing proton pump inhibitor (PPIs) could significantly reduce these risks in older adults. PPIs are drugs which help defend the lining of the stomach and the risk of a bleed is minimised.

Currently, the prescription of PPIs together with aspirin is not routine for over-75s. While PPIs can considerably reduce the risk of digestive bleeding for regular aspirin users, there are concerns over their side effects, which can include nausea and constipation.

The findings, however, only apply to people taking regular aspirin for secondary prevention of cardiovascular events, and cannot be directly applied to people for primary prevention (that is, people with risk factors for cardiovascular disease but who have not yet had an event such as a stroke or heart attack), or to people using aspirin for brief periods for example to treat pain or fever.

But it must be stressed that no-one should come off the pills quickly, or without consulting their doctor, as doing so would create an immediate risk of heart attacks.

Around 40 per cent of pensioners in the UK take aspirin daily. This estimate is also evenly split between those who have already suffered a heart attack or stroke, and those taking it as a precaution.

Prof Peter Rothwell, the lead author from the University of Oxford said aspirin was causing around 20,000 bleeds annually – and causing at least 3,000 deaths.

Prof Rothwell said: “We know clearly from trials and other research that aspirin is effective at preventing recurrent heart attacks and strokes. Twenty per cent of potential recurrent heart attacks and strokes are prevented by aspirin.

“Nevertheless, there are also about 3,000 excess bleeding deaths attributable to blood-thinners like aspirin across all age-groups,” he said, warning that the risk of serious bleeding is much higher among the over 75s.

“You would probably be advised to stop it in your late 60s or around 70 because at that point the risk of bleeding does start to take off – the risks may well outweigh the benefits,” he said.

Dr Tim Chico, consultant cardiologist, University of Sheffield, said the risks of aspirin were often understimated. “Although bleeding is a well-recognised side effect of aspirin, this drug is still seen by many people as harmless, perhaps because of how easily it can be bought over the counter, “ he said. “Prescription of any drug is a balance between the benefits of the medication against its risks, and aspirin is no different,” he said.

The need for cautious antibiotic usage

Antibiotics are medicines which are used to treat forms of bacterial infection or prevent their spread. As the name “antibiotics” suggest, they are anti-bodies and work by killing bacteria or preventing them from reproducing and spreading.

That all sounds impressive. But unfortunately antibodies don’t work for everything. For example, antibiotics don’t work for viral infections such as colds and flu, and most coughs and sore throats. Someone suffering from these infections usually get better without the use of antibiotics. The use of antibiotics to treat these is actually counter-productive, as taking antibiotics when you don’t need them encourages dangerous bacteria that live inside you to become resistant. Over time, this will mean that when you require the help of antibiotics most, they may not work for you as you may have actually been encouraging the tolerance of bacteria by suppressing your body’s ability to fight bacteria.

So don’t use antibiotics for common ailments that can get better on their own. In these situations, what you need is pain relief, and there are many options to choose from. However, antibiotics may be used to treat bacterial infections in cases such as when bacteria could infect others unless treated or infections are not likely to clear up without antibiotics. In other words, if there is further risk of infection to others, or complications which may arise from a lack of treatment, then a course of antibiotics is best followed.

The doses of antibiotics vary but if you are prescribed a course, then take the antibiotics as directed on the packet or the patient information leaflet that comes with the medication. If in doubt then seek advice from the pharmacist.

Antibiotics can be administered in various ways. The most common antibiotics are oral ones, in the form of capsules, tablets or liquid. These are commonly used to treat moderate infections or infections which are milder. There are also topical antibiotics, which are basically creams, lotions, sprays or drops, which are often administered for skin infections.

Topical and oral antibiotics are for less-serious infections. More serious infections, where the medicine has to be absorbed more quickly into the bloodstream, have to be treated by antibiotics administered through injection or drip infusion.

It is essential to finish taking a prescribed course of antibiotics, even if you feel better before the course has ended The prescribed doseage is the estimated time it will take to completely kill off the bacteria. Midway through a course, you may have killed off enough bacteria to not be under the effect of the infection, but stopping the course of antibiotics then can leave the remaining bacteria become resistant to the antibiotic.

But what if you missing a dose of antibiotics? If that is the case, then it is advisable to take that dose as soon as you remember and then continue to take your course of antibiotics as normal. However, if you have missed a dose and only remembered it when it is nearly time for the next dose, it is preferable to simply skip it and merely to continue your regular dosing schedule. Taking two doses only encourages the body to anticipate needing the double doseage in order to fight the infection, and messes up the body’s resistance levels.

Furthermore, there is a higher risk of side effects if you take two doses closer together than recommended. You may experience effects such as pain in your stomach, diarrhoea, and feeling or being sick. Most side effects are gastro-intestinal, and overdosing on anti-biotics may cause bloating, indigestion and diarrhoea.

Some people may have an allergic reaction to antibiotics, especially penicillin and a type called cephalosporins. In very rare cases, this can lead to a serious allergic reaction (anaphylaxis), which is a medical emergency. Sufferers carry an epi-pen and the drug is administered in the bloodstream through injection.

Antibiotics are not over the counter medicines and you should never use any remaining tablets arising from someonbe else’s incomplete course, as you may experience different reactions to the drug. Some antibiotics are also not suitable for people with certain medical conditions, or women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, as they may, for example, adversely affect the lining of the stomach. You should only ever take antibiotics prescribed for you and also never pass them on to someone else.

Antibiotics are only still chemicals and depending on the constituents, some can also react unpredictably with other medications, such as the oral contraceptive pill and alcohol. It’s important to read the information leaflet that comes with your medication carefully and discuss any concerns with your pharmacist or GP.

There are hundreds of different types of antibiotics, but most of them can be broadly classified into six groups. These are outlined below.

Penicillins (such as penicillin and amoxicillin) – widely used to treat a variety of infections, including skin infections, chest infections and urinary tract infections

Cephalosporins (such as cephalexin) – used to treat a wide range of infections, but some are also effective for treating more serious infections, such as septicaemia and meningitis

Aminoglycosides (such as gentamicin and tobramycin) – tend to only be used in hospital to treat very serious illnesses such as septicaemia, as they can cause serious side effects, including hearing loss and kidney damage; they’re usually given by injection, but may be given as drops for some ear or eye infections

Tetracyclines (such as tetracycline and doxycycline)– can be used to treat a wide range of infections, but are commonly used to treat moderate to severe acne and rosacea

Macrolides (such as erythromycin and clarithromycin) – can be particularly useful for treating lung and chest infections, or an alternative for people with a penicillin allergy, or to treat penicillin-resistant strains of bacteria

Fluoroquinolones (such as ciprofloxacin and levofloxacin) – broad-spectrum antibiotics that can be used to treat a wide range of infections

The use of antibiotics especially for conditions that aren’t serious has led to a rise in the number of high-tolerant infections, or superbugs. These superbugs and have a high tolerance to many anti-bodies and include:

methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)
Clostridium difficile (C. diff)
the bacteria that cause multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB)
carbapenemase-producing Enterobacteriaceae (CPE)

Ridding the world of these types of infections can be challenging, and these superbugs are becoming an increasing cause of disability and death across the world. The biggest worry is that new strains of bacteria may emerge with higher levels of resistance and that can’t be effectively treated by any existing antibiotics, so we have to be wary in how we use them, and when we suffer from minor infections, let the body try to fight off the infection instead of relying on antibiotics which may weaken the body’s immunity in the long run.

Medicines: Brand Names and Generics

William Shakespeare once wrote that “A rose by any other name is still a rose.” And in the pharmaceutical world it is a common occurrence to see that the same medicine can be called by different names. This can prove to be confusing.

Many medicines have two names. The first is the scientific name to the medicine itself – an expert committee decides the generic or common name for it, named for the active ingredient itself. For example, erectile dysfunction is treated by a medicine containing sildenafil, which is a generic name.

The same medicine also has a second name, the brand name. For example, sildenafil is more commonly known by its brand name, Viagra. Pfizer, the company that produces it, has chosen to market it under this name because brand names are more memorable than scientific names, especially at the onset when new products have just been launched. Can you imagine someone going to the pharmacist and asking for the “Silder .. silver … cyber … you know, the thing that gives more bounce and keeps going for longer?”

“Red Bull? Duracell?”

You get the idea.

The company that produces a new medical product is usually granted a patent. This patent grants the company exclusive rights to the product for a standard period usually of twenty years, and allows the company to recoup the investment spent on the development on the drug as well as to financially benefit from sales during the patent period.

While twenty years may seem like an extraordinary amount of time, it is actually not so. Most companies apply for the patent at the initial stages at development, to avoid the situation of being trumped by another company after they have done a few years of research. Imagine you have done five years of research and when you are about to proceed further, someone has applied for a patent for a product that effectively nullifies the work you have done. Or what is worse, they may even draw on your research from various medical publications to further the development of their own product. The time you have spent has been wasted and your intellectual property has been stolen.

The first ten to fifteen years of a patent are hence a covering period for the research into it and to cover the licensing process while the remaining period is the time the company has to solely market the product using as brand name, so that it becomes memorable and commandeers a huge market share after the patent period has expired.

Once the patent protection expires, other companies can produce their own version of the medicine. Hence, pharmaceutical companies are always engaged in a race against time. They have a twenty-year period to research, license, market and profit from their product before the other sharks enter the fray, so to speak.

Take for example, ibuprofen, the medicine commonly used to treat pain and inflammation. There are many branded versions of ibuprofen, such as Nurofen and Hedex. Various supermaket chains distribute their own versions as well, but under the common scientific name. You have Tesco’s ibuprofen or Superdrug’s ibuprofen. We can assume that once a product (such as Neurofen) reaches the mass market, and has been quoted enough times as to “contain ibuprofen”, the scientific name itself becomes somewhat of a brand in its own right.

Having various versions of the same medicine is confusing, but depending on our loyalty we may opt for Neurofen because it is the established brand we know. This of course depends on how it has been marketed; if the pharmaceutical company has done enough advertising to convince us that “Neurofen”, and not “Ibuprofen” is the key to pain-relief, then by association we may go for Neurofen whenever we have a headache. If cost is a more significant factor than loyalty, then we might go for the generic medicines because they are usually cheaper – they have had fewer research and development costs, but they contain the same active ingredient as the branded products.

In some cases latter companies may have simply waited for the patent to lapse, before moving in to reverse-engineer their own version of the product and market it. This is especially true for products that people will always have a need for, such as products offering relief from pain, flu, or colds; or balms of various descriptions.

Generic medicines go through the same detailed safety and quality requirements as the original branded product, but because the significant outlay of research costs have been avoided (the initial company has done the hard work) the latter products are cheaper.

Supermarket chains are already flooded with many versions of the same product. Look at your supermarket chain – how many brands of ibuprofen do they stock? This begs the question of whether chains will eventually simply stick with the products with a big market share (and hence likelihood of sale), stock more cheaper options, or even offer cheaper, newer brands. It is likely that they will do a combination of the first two. New and cheaper brands will find it hard to penetrate the market based on cost alone, as the cost of advertising is too huge. The only way they can hold on to a significant market share is if one of the bigger brands declines, perhaps through negative publicity, and one of the new brands promotes itself by aligning itself with a social cause.

Imagine, for example, there is a medicine called Increasil (scientific name) produced under the brand name Livealongerlife by parent company Healthpharm. Liveralongerlife claims to prolong the life of the terminally-ill and extend their high-functioning years by delaying the onset of infections. After it has been doing well for a few years, towards the end of its patent, it is discovered that Healthpharm conducted unethical drug trials – they tested liquid versions of Increasil by injecting them into corpses to see if it would slow the rate of decay.

Amidst the media storm, the company Fitness21 prepares to produce its own version of Increasil under the brand name Newtrition. They reverse-engineer batches of Increasil, and benefit from the research Healthpharm had previously done. As part of its submission evidence into the safety of Increasil, Fitness21 conducts trials on aging volunteers to see if they experience any increased life expectancy. The evidence gathered by Fitness 21, and also the perceived benefit of Increasil (while it was sold by Healthpharm), contributes to Fitness21 gaining a license to market Increasil in the form of Newtrition.

Fitness21 builds its factories in the impoverished third-world town of Valhalla, promising to regenerate the area. The people of the town benefit from employment, and Fitness21 sells Newtrition to its own employees at a vastly discounted rate, announcing that it hopes to raise the life expectancy of Valhalla from 50 to 75 within two decades, and in doing so, allowing the citizens to have a longer working life and more wealth, with the aim of lifting the town out of its doldrums. Future generations will benefit and the children and grandchildren of those now of working age will have very different futures from their forefathers. Fitness21 announces that its employees are like family, and it has an interest both in elevating their working and life conditions, and the fact that it is distributing Newtrition to its own employees means it has an obligation in ensuring the product itself is of the highest quality. Fitness21 is strongly interwoven and ingrained in the social fabric from which Newtrition is produced.

Whose version of Increasil would you buy? Probably the latter’s. And that is probably the only way for unestablished brands to forge through a packed market, by leveraging on social and ethical links. We have seen various products – not just medicines – marketed using that angle. Do the words Fairtrade and Co-Op sound familiar?

Prescribers (people who prescribe medicines, such as GPs) are encouraged to prescribe medicines by their generic name, not only because it is ethically right to prescribe the medicine costing less if the results are similar – and generic brands can cost significantly less – but also because it gives the pharmacist the widest choice of products to dispense, which can be important, particularly if there is a shortage of a particular product.

If you are switched from a particular brand to a generic, it is standard practice for your pharmacist to explain the changes to you, in terms of side effects, and to address any concerns you may have. In fact, this is not just if you switch brands – whenever you have changes in medication you should always speak to your pharmacist.

Only in rare cases it is important for a patient to stay on the branded medicine previously prescribed for them, rather than changing to a generic medicine. This is usually because of the way the medicine acts on the body.

Some examples of when you should keep taking your brand of prescribed medicine include:

Epilepsy medicines – these should be treated with care because different versions may have slight differences in the way they are absorbed, which can cause big differences in their effect. For example, prescribers may decide the branded version of lamotrigine (Lamictal) is more suitable than the generic version.

Modified-release preparations of medicines – such as modified-release versions of theophylline, nifedipine, diltiazem and verapamil. A branded version may sometimes be a better option than the generic equivalent, as they can be absorbed differently, and suited differently to various individuals.

Biological medicines – these complex medicines are derived from proteins and other substances produced by the body. Copies of biological medicines, called biosimilars, can never be exactly the same so shouldn’t be automatically used as substitutes. Doctors should always reference the brand name so the manufacturer and batch could be identified if there were any problems with the medicine.

Ciclosporin – a medicine that suppresses the immune system (the body’s natural defence system). Different branded versions may cause different levels of ciclosporin in your blood.

Mesalazine – which is used to treat ulcerative colitis (a long-term condition that affects the colon). The way that mesalazine is absorbed varies between different brands.

Lithium – this treats a number of mental health conditions. Different brands vary widely in terms of how much of the medicine is absorbed and becomes active.

Beclometasone dipropionate CFC-free inhalers to treat asthma – there are two inhalers that contain the same active substance (beclometasone dipropionate), but one is much stronger.