The People's Perspective on Medicine

What Happens When Minor Drug Side Effects Turn Deadly?

Have you ever suffered from minor drug side effects? What is a mild adverse reaction anyway? Is it hair loss? what about a cough? When can seemingly minor symptoms turn deadly?
Lymphoma – Printed Diagnosis with Blurred Text. On Background of Medicaments Composition – Blue Pills, Injections and Syringe.
** Note: Shallow depth of field

Health professionals often categorize drug side effects three ways. First come the common complications of medicines. If 20 to 30 percent of patients complain of headaches or diarrhea after taking a medicine, that is clearly common. Patients should be warned.

Next are the so-called minor drug side effects. These may not even be mentioned, especially if they occur less than 5 percent of the time. For example, insomnia or headache are often perceived as mild complications of some medications.

Then there are the serious or even life-threatening complications. Not infrequently, these adverse drug reactions are perceived as extremely rare. Many physicians and pharmacists may decide that they have no need to discuss such scary side effects with patients. They may assume that doing so would just worry people unnecessarily.

TV Commercials Must Spill the Beans:

If you ever watch television, you know that prescription drug ads have proliferated like dandelions after a spring rain. They often list a number of serious or even life-threatening side effects. This is an FDA requirement for airing drug ads.

But companies have figured out sophisticated strategies to distract viewers during the scary stuff. You often hear serious drug side effects recited while people on the screen are smiling and having fun.

Xeljanz XR (Tofacitinib) for RA:

The commercial for the rheumatoid arthritis drug Xeljanz XR cautions that it:

“…can lower your ability to fight infection, including tuberculosis. Serious, sometimes fatal infections, lymphoma and other cancers have happened…Tears in the stomach or intestines, low blood cell count and higher liver tests and higher cholesterol levels have happened…”

Vraylar (Cariprazine) to Treat Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia:

A medicine for bipolar disorder, Vraylar, warns of an increased risk of death or stroke in older people with dementia. Fever, stiff muscles or confusion could signal “a life-threatening reaction.” Uncontrollable muscle movements may be permanent. The announcer continues:

“High cholesterol and weight gain, high blood sugar which could lead to coma or death, decreased white blood cells, which can be fatal, dizziness upon standing, falls, seizures, impaired judgment, heat sensitivity and trouble swallowing may occur.”

Minor Drug Side Effects?

The adverse reactions listed during TV commercials are not the only problems patients may encounter with prescribed medications. Doctors and pharmacists might or might not mention adverse reactions such as lymphoma or seizures. Even though they are serious, some health professionals choose not to mention these scary side effects.

Many medicines also have the potential to cause less serious complications. Doctors and pharmacists refer to them as “minor drug side effects.” They include things like fatigue, cough, headache, heartburn, constipation, diarrhea, insomnia, weight gain, hair loss and blurred vision.

Such reactions may not be life threatening, but they can make people’s lives miserable. Often, people may not realize that a health problem is related to their medication. If a health professional doesn’t mention minor side effects, how would a patient figure out the connection?

The ACE Inhibitor Cough:

One of the most popular drugs in the pharmacy is lisinopril, prescribed to control blood pressure. Doctors who prescribe it may not mention that this ACE inhibitor can cause a chronic cough. It may seem like a trivial problem. One reader related this story:

“A month and a half ago, my doctor prescribed lisinopril for my hypertension. She never told me about any side effects. I had been taking it for about three weeks when I woke up one night with a horrible coughing spell. This went on for about a week. I was getting no sleep at all because of the coughing and the irritation in my throat.

“I went back to my doctor and she told me that I had allergies. She prescribed a steroid inhaler and told me to take Zyrtec once a day. Another week went by, and I still had a dry, hacking cough. It was getting so bad that I couldn’t go to work.

“I am an ex-smoker and I was imagining the worst: throat cancer, emphysema or the like. I searched online to see if anyone else was having the same problems and I found The People’s Pharmacy website. What a revelation that lisinopril was causing the problem all along!”

We have heard from hundreds of visitors about the problems they have encountered with ACE inhibitors like Lisinopril. Here is just one such article:

ACE Inhibitors and Angioedema:

Another problem with drugs like lisinopril is a strange reaction called angioedema. It can come on suddenly, with no warning. It can also strike after years of seemingly safe treatment. The tongue and throat can swell. Breathing can become impossible.


Cindy shares her story of gabapentin for nerve pain:

“I’ve been prescribed gabapentin for nerve pain in my lower legs. I have been taking it for three years. I have worse depression, severe blurred vision, dizziness, muscle twitching, sudden sweating. I’ve talked to my doctor about this and he didn’t seem to be very concerned.”

The official prescribing information for gabapentin includes this warning:

“Patients, their caregivers, and families should be informed that AEDs increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior and should be advised of the need to be alert for the emergence or worsening of the signs and symptoms of depression, any unusual changes in mood or behavior, or the emergence of suicidal thoughts, behavior, or thoughts about self-harm. Behaviors of concern should be reported immediately to healthcare providers.”

Worsening depression is not a minor side effect!

Hydrochlorothiazide and Skin Cancer:

A diuretic called hydrochlorothiazide (HCTZ or HCT for short) is one of the most popular drugs in the world. According to our calculations, 20 million Americans swallow a pill containing HCTZ every day. It is considered super safe by many health professionals. If side effects are mentioned, lower potassium levels would probably be the main issue.

This seemingly benign water pill has a slew of other side effects. It can lower other minerals besides potassium (sodium, magnesium, zinc). It can also raise blood sugar, uric acid and cholesterol. Dizziness, especially upon standing up, is a potentially serious side effect if it leads to a fall.

More information is found here:

We bet that there is one side effect that is rarely, if ever, mentioned. It is skin cancer (squamous cell carcinoma or SCC). Danish researchers have linked thiazide diuretics like HCTZ to this surprisingly common skin cancer (Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, April, 2018).

Tee in Louisiana shares a story about SCC.

“I am completely devastated to find out about this medication. I have been on it since around 2007. In 2016 I was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma. I had to have 5 surgeries to have the left side of my nose removed and to rebuild what was taken. My septum collapsed during surgery. They had to remove cartilage from my ear to rebuild my septum.

“It was truly a nightmare and the most painful thing I have ever had to go through. Thank God I had wonderful doctors because it was very hard to deal with. I was scared to death. I was under the care of doctors from late 2016 to July 2017. It is truly devastating to find out this this medication might cause this type of skin cancer. I had no idea.”

While squamous cell carcinoma is much less dangerous than melanoma, Tee’s experience suggests that it can indeed be serious.

Antibiotics and the Nervous System:

People love antibiotics. There is no doubt that this class of medicines has saved millions of lives over the decades. Most people think that antibiotics are benign, with few drug side effects. Diarrhea is probably perceived as the most common problem.

Some antibiotics in the class called fluoroquinolones (FQ for short) can produce serious and lasting complications.

Sam in Melbourne, FL is having an ongoing reaction to levofloxacin:

“I had a very active life before taking Levaquin last year. As a result, I got chronic insomnia. It ruined my life along with ongoing digestive issues. I am not sure what else will come after these two issues. I am suffering.

“I am in my 30’s and lost control of my life and became isolated from all my friends due to mood issues, fatigue and sleep problems. I have not slept properly since July 2017 and have headaches all day since then. I try to exercise 3-4 times a week and eat healthy food but I am not sure what else I need to do in order to get my life back.”

Judy reports somewhat similar reactions to Cipro (ciprofloxacin):

‘Two doses of Cipro taken over one day in December, 2005, have taken away my life. I am still suffering (May, 2014) and it has been a horrible, painful journey. Issues have changed over time, but they re-cycle.

“To date, I have enormous burning pain over my entire body (some have likened it to chemo pain). I also have severe GI issues, vision issues (nearly blind) and have had at least 1 TIA (transient ischemic attack). I walk with a 4 pronged cane. I have had many CNS problems including sleep disturbances from insomnia to nearly constant sleep. I also have connective tissue/tendon/ligament/muscle issues, which range from pain to rupture.

“I have just had a ramp installed in my home as I will soon need a motorized scooter. I have not been able to walk stairs since the day I took the 2 pills. That was over eight years ago! I was FINE the day before I took the pills. Other than a suspected UTI, in fact I had just finished packing and moving the contents of a condo cross-country.

“Funny, it turned out I did not have a UTI after all, but the doctor was being cautious. I have since found out that Cipro is not to be given to those over 60. I was 62 when I was ‘floxed’.”

People’s Pharmacy Perspective:

We are tired of the term minor drug side effects. Many people have shared their distress with drug-induced hair loss, rash, headache, dry mouth or constipation. Such symptoms may not be as scary as cancer or liver damage, but they deserve serious attention. They can profoundly affect the quality of a person’s life. Sometimes a minor side effect, like dizziness, can be life threatening if it leads to a fall and a hip fracture.

Health professionals should write down common and serious drug side effects before letting a patient leave the office. Symptoms to look out for must be included in the list! That will allow patients to recognize and respond promptly to adverse drug reactions that could affect the quality of their lives.

To help with this discussion we offer our free Drug Safety Questionnaire and Medical History

You may also find our book, Top Screwups, of value. It too includes a Drug Safety Questionnaire along with guidelines to help prevent minor or major drug side effects. You will learn about the way to avoid the top 10 mistakes doctors make when prescribing.

Share your own experience with “minor” drug side effects in the comment section below.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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My doctor put me on Hydrochlorthiazide (HCTZ) several years ago, about one year later found out my Potassium was low so after several times adjusting my dosage I was put on Potassium 10 mgs daily and this is not cheap medicine. I have asked him several times my doctor just change my HCTZ to another medicine and he said this was the best way to handle my blood pressure any comments?.

Get a second opinion or even a third opinion:

Many healthcare professionals are not even aware of the possible dangerous side effects of the medications they prescribe. Even after I’ve had severe reaction to several medications in a certain category, several doctors continue to try to prescribe other medications in that same category. Usually I need to repeatedly argue with them about how I cannot tolerate that medication. There needs to be more accountability in the medical field for the effects of the medications they prescribe.

Not only do drug ads distract you with people having “fun,” but they have someone who can talk REALLY fast, and the volume is turned down.

My husband and I no longer watch commercial TV, and we don’t miss it.

My husband was prescribed Pulmicort, an inhaler for bronchial asthma. Within weeks he became extremely hoarse and had difficulty speaking. The ENT sent him for a scope which discovered some badly inflamed vocal cords. He was prescribed speech therapy which did not help. After discontinuing the inhaler for a few days his voice returned to normal. He has since been to the pulmonologist, and he has been switched to a different inhaler. So far no problems.

This problem was not recognized by the ENT or speech therapist. The medical community needs to share this vital information with patients. My husband did not need speech therapy, and the therapist had no idea that an inhaler could be the root of his problem.

Take as few medications as possible, investigating and looking into natural alternatives with supplements. In other words, you have to take charge of your health.

Wow! After reading some of these comments I got off easy.
I have been poisoned by pharmaceuticals several times and the MDs seem confused when it happens and often fail to address the issue.

I have had 10 out of 12 of these symptoms. If you have even one of these symptoms quit taking the medication, and contact your MD. In the office of the doctor who prescribed the med, I am only allowed to talk to staff, who suggested coming into the office. When I explained that I could not drive due to the side effects, their solution was to call an ambulance and go to the Emergency Room. I waited it out and got better.

Unfortunately, I had not yet learned so I dealt with the side effects of the same drugs a year later when the next MD also wouldn’t believe the drugs would do that to me.

Short story, over a year later I did it again. I now avoid such products. It has become apparent that this is a familiar situation. Most everyone in my family has a strong response to prescription drugs. So we use them as little as possible.

The worst experience I have had to date was being crippled, literally, by the examination of a local Neurologist’s Personal Assistant, seriously lacking in professional skills. I walked in and was barely able to get home after the examination.

It has taken several years, and I am now recovering.

Choose your health care professionals and medications wisely!

I’ve been struggling with Fluoroquinolone toxicity for the last 5 years – a powerful antibiotic known for causing devastating side effects such as nerve damage, tendon damage, tinnitus, ear problems, GI issues, and more. These drugs should only be used as a last line of defense for life-threatening conditions, not simple sinus/ear infections or UTIs. Every time you take a Fluoroquinolone, it’s like playing Russian Roulette with your health. Some people have died, and others don’t want to live anymore because of how much pain they’re in afterwards.

DOXYCYCLENE – I had a rare side effect: my short term memory was temporarily obliterated! I started a new job on a Monday and was fine, and performed well on Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday, I saw a physician for a sinus infection, and Doxycyclene was prescribed. I couldn’t remember the training information on Thursday. Friday, they were going to let me go because I couldn’t do the job. I LITERALLY could not hand-copy a figure like “403” from a spreadsheet onto a piece of paper because I couldn’t retain the number! I pointed out I’d been FINE on Monday and Tuesday. I told the manager about the medication. Fortunately, while skeptical, she gave me the weekend for the RX to clear from my system. I was about 80% recovered by Monday, and she kept me on. My brain functioned normally by Wednesday. This was TERRIFYING and could have been life changing! I was afraid I was going to have to be committed to a psychiatric facility or to a nursing home. Who knows what would have happened to me if the medical profession had had the chance to weigh in on this! BEWARE.

As per a Sept 27, 2016 article in U.S. News and World Report: It is estimated that in the U.S., 100,000 to 128,000 people per year die from prescribed drugs and medications taken as directed by physicians. I well could have been one of those if I had not been sensitive to the side affects of the prescribed medications and quit the medications and the prescribing doctors who informed me to just “ignore” the side affects.

It is wise to get second and even third opinions from different doctors. It is the patient who suffers from the medication side affects and in many cases, will experience death if the side affects are ignored.

I was recently diagnosed with emphysema & prescribed Breo Elipta. Shortly thereafter, I developed an upper respiratory infection and was treated with erythromycin. I stopped Breo until my sore throat & cough subsided. A couple of weeks later, my PCP diagnosed pneumonia in one lung. After 10 days of Levaquin, I resumed Breo. After a few days, I realized I woke up feeling ok, but after inhaling Breo I became shaky and weak. That’s when I carefully read the Breo insert and boy, was that enlightening! Breo Elipta side effects include cough, pneumonia, tremors, shortness of breath, etc., etc. I’m angry my doctor didn’t make the connection. And why on earth is this drug prescribed for someone with COPD???

My doctor encouraged me to keep taking Pepcid AC even though I told him it was causing ear pain and terrible ringing in my ears. When I could not stand the pain and ringing any longer I discontinued the medication on my own. The pain went away, but it left me with permanent ringing in my ears.

Levaquin is still a favorite silver antibiotic bullet of doctors because it works so well in curing bronchitis, pneumonia and urinary tract infections especially and many people can tolerate it even though the dangerous drug was initially developed to be used as a drug of last resort to treat serious infections. It is like playing Russian roulette, however, if you are one of the people whose life can be forever changed in taking a fluoroquinolone antibiotic with its toxicity causing serious, long-term, and even permanently disabling side effects, most often irreversible.

Thousands of these injured people now refer to themselves as “the Floxies” according to their website Their hope is to make the medical profession more aware of possible irreversible side effects that, in some cases, became noticeable many months, and even years after finishing the course of drugs most often prescribed such as Cipro, Levaquin, and Avelox.

“Thousands of people have suffered needlessly from the devastating effects of fluoroquinolone antibiotics, when another, safer antibiotic could have, and should have, been used. The damage done by fluoroquinolones is largely unacknowledged by the medical establishment and an accurate diagnosis, compensation and relief are difficult to come by. There is no known cure for Fluoroquinolone Toxicity Syndrome/Floxing.”

My 75-year-old husband could not move his legs in attempting to climb stairs in our home after taking his third of five tablets of Levaquin prescribed for a relatively mild case of bronchitis. The FDA black box warning went unnoticed by both his doctor and the pharmacist who gave him an out-of-date insert not bearing the new notice. Luckily, he suffered no long-term damage.

A Citizen Petition was submitted to the FDA in 2014 by Dr. Charles Bennett and The Southern Network on Adverse Reactions (SONAR) asking for warnings to be placed on the Levaquin label regarding possible Mitochondrial Toxicity Syndrome, a disruption of cellular function which causes severe nerve damage. Such toxicity may increase neurodegenerative diseases, including liver damage, ALS, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s based on an April 17, 2013 FDA report. But instead of acting on the petition, the FDA notified Bennett that it’s “been unable to reach a decision” and will continue to study the issue. A higher number of complaints from doctors and patients involved Levaquin more than with the other drugs of the same class. and

How many more people have to unknowingly suffer toxic side effects or even die before the FDA issues another very crucial black box warning to Levaquin?

I was diagnosed with Congestive Heart Failure and AFib and was prescribed Amidodarone and Furosemide. Within 2 weeks the Amidodarone cause me to have Neuropathy for which I was prescribed Gabapentin (my PPO gave me a print out of all the possible side effects to watch for). After taking Furosemide for 10 months, it caused me to develop Gout for which I was prescribed Allopurinol. That’s 2 more meds I have to take to counteract other meds. My PPO is good about letting me know possible side effects. Cardiologists, not so much.

Beverly – I developed such serious side effects after being prescribed Amiodarone, I couldn’t walk and I think it would have killed me had I not quit after an alternative meds expert warned me about its side effects. (My cardiologist had insisted it could not be causing my problems.) I also had gout in my big toe – horribly painful! – after taking furosemide for a few months.

The same alt med expert advised me to take celery seed (a supplement from a health food store) and that cured the big toe. I still take a little celery seed, because I’m still on a low dose of furosemide, and have had no more gout. Hang in there and take good care of yourself. If you have any more side effects, look them up on the PP website (thank you Graedons!) and then google for supplements or vitamins that might help.

I had a bunion surgery. I was given keflex. I’m 53. Awful side effects like the ones in the above article, and more. I was pressured into taking mobic. 2 months after the keflex, my hair started falling out. The mobic made me miserable. I have IBS, sibo. Side effects are awful. Wasn’t warned about any of this. I’m upset!

I don’t understand how drugs that have “potential fatal reactions” are allowed on the market. I’m also pretty sure that is someone does die, it’s never attributed to a medication.

I was first prescribed Captopril with Hydrochlorothiazide about 25 years ago. Aside from the common cough associated with captopril, was the annoyance of taking the pill twice a day, so the doctor eventually switched to a slow release (once a day) equivalent – enalopril. The cough persisted. To shorten the long trek to visit the first doctor, the new doctor heard my complaint about the cough and switched me to an ARB, Avalide, then to its generic equivalent, irbesartan, also containing a slightly lower amount of HCTz. The cough is 99% gone, and the irbesartan appears to control my blood pressure about as well as captopril.

When my wife showed signs of elevated blood pressure, the same doctor prescribed lisinopril because she is somewhat fragile and he felt that this drug is milder and would be tolerated better. However, an hour or so after she took the first lisinopril tablet, I heard a thump from the downstairs lav and discovered her unconscious, head down between the toilet and the wall. At first, we didn’t make the connection, but, the following day, I found her lying on the kitchen floor, and when revived, she was violently sick to her stomach. She stopped taking the lisinopril immediately, and reported the events to our doctor.

He attempted to persuade her to take the lisinopril, again, but the third time she lost consciousness and later threw up, we refused to take this drug again, despite the doctor’s insistence that it was the mildest and safest blood pressure pill available. She now takes no medication of any sort, and though her BP is usually around 140 to 150 over 80, we feel this is much safer than having her losing consciousness or worse.

11 years ago I was given IV Levaquin as a prophylactic during minor surgery. I had no infection! My life was ruined.

Yes, I agree that the adverse effects of prescribed medications are not taken seriously when you report it to your physician. Usually you are given more medications for the complaints, for example, beta blockers will cause insomnia and diabetes.

I was floxed by Levaquin in 2001. The bad thing is when you do suspect that a drug caused problems they argue with you, and even get angry with you!!! I had a doctor last year tell me that the Levaquin causes LEAKY GUT.. and it did. I began drinking Kefir Milk daily 6 weeks ago, and my muscles in shoulders have come back—literally overnight!! They are weak from not being used, but the leaky gut caused them become unhealthy, tendons split and ruptured… But the Kefir put out the fire of the Levaquin Tendonitis. My body is finally relaxed, damaged from the tendonitis caused by levaquin, but I finally feel that the worst is over…. 15 yrs later. Kefir also straightened out my sinus problems, and I feel health again inside.

I have experienced severe nose bleeds, (the worst in my lifetime), from eliquis and when I called the cardiologist about the severe bleeding, he suggested that I get my nose cauterized. I quit the eliquis and changed doctors.

I was put on coumadin/warfarin and suffered serious side affects which were a series of infections and I was hospitalized four days on an antibiotic drip. The infections after hospitalization continued until I quit the coumadin/warfarin: Yet the amazing thing is that the physicians assistant, insisted that it was NOT the coumadin/warfarin that caused all of the infections and yet when I quit the coumadin/warfarin the infections disappeared.

I then was put on Pradaxa which caused severe swelling, blistering, and pain in my hands to the point the it was difficult to use my hands. I was then put on Xeralto and I experienced the same side affects as Pradaxa. One day after my ablation in August 2017, I took Pradaxa again and became very nauseated. My current cardiologist works with me and accepts the fact that I cannot take any of the blood thinners.

The first thought after reading this is simply; Prescription medication guarantees repeat customers. The ball keeps spinning.

This post was written for me! After 10 years on Lisinopril, I developed a hacking cough. I was switched to Losarton. One 2.5 mg tablet put me in the ER with lip and tongue swelling. Then it was Amlodipine. After 10 days I had red facial flushing and horrible itching scalp. Next came Hydrochlorothiazide. After 12 days on this one, I could barely walk up a flight of stairs and had low back pain. Now my internist is suggesting a potassium sparing diuretic. The side effects to this one are frightening. Side effects do happen. It could happen to you. Read the drug warnings. The doctor does not tell you,

I could have been killed by the painkiller, Oxycodone post surgery after making it VERY CLEAR TO SURGEON & staph pre-op that I absolutely could not tolerate and I reminded the surgeon of that again before being wheeled in to surgery. I came out extremely whoozy as to be expected and the surgeon had handed my husband a typically illegible Rx that I should take as soon as I got home. I had hallucinations, heard *things*, etc. etc., and a friend who worked as a nurse asked “what the hell are they giving you for pain”? I said I’d need my reading glasses and was horrified to see Oxycodone with a very high dose of Tylenol which I do not take. She advised I call the pharmacy who told me that the surgeon prescribed the highest dose of Oxycodone allowed. I decided I’d rather deal with the pain and disposed of it. People, please don’t believe your doctors care about you. They believe major bio-pharma reps and are controlled by their “practice managers”. Something Has to be done about the “medical industry”, they are pissed off because insurance companies are paying so little, and they appear to hate their jobs and patients. I should have SUED!

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