All drugs come with side effects, whether they be common off-the-counter medicines or ones that require specialist prescription. Most of these effects can be minor, and some can just be an inconvenience – like having to go to the toilet more often than usual. But a few are serious, and some can just have unforeseen effects that address other ailments.
The most common set of side effects for drugs taken internally involves the gastrointestinal system. Because all prescription drugs invariably end up broken down in the stomach, nearly any drug can cause nausea or an upset stomach. The chances of these happening are quite rare, though for the handful of users this happens too the results can be quite upsetting. For drugs used externally, skin irritation is a common complaint. Which leads me to wonder – if you are merely replacing one symptom with another, is medicine merely an elimination of an ill-effect by replacement through increasingly minor symptoms, until they are bearable?
Side effects fall into several categories. The most common allergic reactions can happen with any drug and can range from itching and rash, which cause flaring on the skin and trigger even more itching and rash. They can be serious all the way up to a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction.
So if drugs have side effects, why not just get rid of these effects in the course of construction? Surely the likes of Glaxo Smith Kline, with their huge companies and research budget, can afford to genetically alter the drugs and lower the side effects? Some drugs can’t help but trigger side effects because of their chemical structure. One example is the common allergy drug diphenhydramine (more commonly known by the brand name Benadryl). It eases allergy symptoms but in the course of doing so, it also suppresses the activity of the body chemical acetylcholine. The side effect it causes is drowsiness and a host of other side effects, including dry mouth. It seems like to minimise allergies, it makes you fall asleep. Surely any fool could do that? Want to stop scratching? Go to bed!
Some drugs typically have barely noticeable side effects when dosed properly. The side effects can be minimal externally but internally they can be quite serious. For example, Warfarin (also known as Coumadin or marketed as Jantoven), is used to prevent blood clots, and while it is usually well tolerated, it can cause serious internal bleeding. I suppose it is like cancer, or heavy consumption of alcohol.
And while side effects may exist within the drug itself, further complications may also occur when certain drugs are mixed with certain other things. If you are mixing different types of drugs together, the combined chemical properties might cause complications. I suppose this is why my mother used to say never take Neurofen and Paracetamol within hours of each other. These might also be considered drug interactions. Drinking alcohol with narcotic painkillers has also caused an alarming increase in accidental overdose deaths. What??? Again, part of me wonders whether it isthe interactions of these chemicals that induced these, or whether it was because drinkers thought they had taken drugs to counter the effects like headaches, and then proceeded to consume more than they would normally have. Drinking grapefruit juice can affect the blood levels of several drugs, including some blood pressure and cholesterol medicines. Citrus fruits tend not to mix well with other foods, although vodka and orange seem a common mix?
Information about drugs legally has to be made available on the label of over-the-counter drug products and on package inserts or printed materials included with the packaging. Usually on the outer box you will find the concise version of all the drug does, and the inserts include the longer version. Because this could be potentially be a long list of possible bad effects, and written in a technical style, it is very helpful to also talk to pharmacists or doctors if you have any queries regarding a drug’s side effects.
Drugs are sometimes prescribed to young children – the more common examples are for hyperactivity, although depression prescriptions are becoming increasingly common, even for children under the age of ten. In the case of hyperactivity, for example, we should always be mindful of simply prescribing medication because it may be that the behaviour is a response to the demands of the task. In the case of depression, it may be that the individual is overwhelmed by demands, and coping strategies, rather than medication, may provide better help. Drugs should be carefully considered because one of the long term side effects is addiction and resistance to medication.
In America, before a drug is released on the market it must be approved by the FDA. Pharmaceutical companies typically submitted New Drug Applications (NDAs) which contain the pre-requisite clinical evidence demonstrating that the drug has the therapeutic effect it is supposed to have. The NDA must also contain proof that the drug is safe for human use. Unfortunately this proof comes from testing of the drug, first in animals and then in humans. Is it fair that rabbits and rats should suffer for the human race, in cages, doused with experimental acids to see if they develop irritations or severe symptoms? I guess you have to decide for yourself where you stand on that.
Homeopathic remedies may still be a long way away before they can be relied wholly on as a cure, but the day where herbal or plant-based remedies replace animal-treated alternatives is one we can look forward to. Once the basic questions of safety are settled, the FDA will approve the drug if it deems that the benefits outweigh its risks.
Sometimes not everything is known about a drug’s side effects until after it enters the marketplace and more people start using it. The pool of human testers is fairly small, so until a large data sample of users is obtained the side effects are not wholly known. MedWatch, the FDA’s post-marketing surveillance program seeks voluntary input, mainly from health care professionals, on adverse effects they may be seeing in ”the real world”. Sometimes these reports are numerous and serious enough for the FDA to take regulatory action, either through the addition of warnings to a drug’s label. One example of that involves the psoriasis drug Raptiva. The FDA required that the drug carry the agency’s strongest warning, known as a black box warning, after reports of brain infections and meningitis in patients taking the drug were received. The side effects were deemed so dangerous that the drug was later withdrawn from the market. Did the testers not recognise this when the lab mice died?
In soliciting feedback, the FDA also wants input from consumers using the various prescription drugs. All prescription drugs must be labelled with a toll-free number maintained by the agency for the purpose of reporting side effects with drugs. The FDA labels these “adverse events.” Severe side-effects can be reported through calling MedWatch at 1-800-FDA-1088 or through the FDA web site: www.fda.gov/Safety/MedWatch/HowToReport/default.htm.
As we have seen earlier, the post-marketing information coming in to the FDA is so disturbing that it results in a drug coming off the market. Another case can be seen with the drug Baycol, which lowers cholesterol, after it was strongly linked to a potentially fatal breakdown of muscle tissue. While it had been initially approved in 1997, it was voluntarily withdrawn just four years later when evidence of its side effects was published. The anti-inflammatory drug Duract spent just one year on the market. It had been approved as a product strictly for short-term use, but the FDA found serious liver problems with people taking the drug for longer than what was recommended. Which begs the question: “Who is responsible for regulating patients’ consumption of medicines?” While they are safety guards in place, such as some drugs available only on prescription, what is to stop patients obtaining multiple prescriptions?
That aside, drug companies are also required to report adverse events to the FDA, and failure to do so can lead to prosecution. In 1985, two drug companies were fined and sentenced to community service for not reporting adverse events involving the blood pressure drug Selacryn and arthritis drug Oraflex. Both products were pulled from the market.
In the UK, licenses can only be granted by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA).
The stages through which potential medicines are first thoroughly researched start first with the use of tissue culture, followed by computer analysis techniques and finally animal testing.
Likewise, if strict standards of safety and effectiveness are met, clinical trials involving humans can then be used. The license for wider use is approved only if a medicine passes all the phases of clinical trials.
The whole process from discovery to licensing can take a long time, around 10 to 15 years, which means pharmaceutical labs work under a cloak of secrecy and also explains why they may not be willing to withdraw a drug for its side effects if they have invested that much time and money in it.
Not every side effect is a bad one. Some are downright welcome. Take finasteride. Introduced in 1992 to treat noncancerous enlargement of the prostate gland, it was found to regrow hair (and is marketed for that purpose under the name Propecia). Patient: “Doctor, how’s my prostrate?” Doctor: “Under control, but a bit hairy.”
Today, millions of men use a low dose of finasteride to treat male pattern baldness. Minoxidil, originally marketed as an oral tablet for high blood pressure, was found to grow hair in those using it. Today, as a topical lotion or foam, it is a popular over-the-counter remedy for baldness. But can you imagine the doctor going “Your blood pressure is normal, Chewbacca”?