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Who’s Afraid of Drug Side Effects?

There was a time when drug companies did not advertise prescription medicines directly to consumers. After all, doctors, not patients, make the decisions about which medication a patient should take.

The FDA requirement that ads disclose side effects also seemed daunting. Advertisers thought that if you told patients about side effects, no one would ever want to take the drug.

If you watch television now, it is hard to avoid prescription drug commercials. Open any popular magazine and you are faced with ads for medicines to combat depression, diabetes, high cholesterol and osteoporosis, not to mention impotence.

Such drugs come with long lists of potentially scary side effects. Take Abilify, for example. This powerful antipsychotic medication is being promoted as an add-on treatment for depression. The company warns about:

“An increased risk of stroke and ministroke…very high fever, rigid muscles, shaking, confusion, sweating, or increased heart rate and blood pressure…(neuroleptic malignant syndrome (NMS), a rare but serious side effect which could be fatal)…uncontrollable movements of face, tongue, or other parts of body as these may be signs of a serious condition called tardive dyskinesia (TD)…Increases in blood sugar levels (hyperglycemia), in some cases serious and associated with coma or death…Lightheadedness or faintness caused by a sudden change in heart rate and blood pressure when rising quickly from a sitting or lying position (orthostatic hypotension)…Decreases in white blood cells (infection fighting cells)…ABILIFY and medicines like it can affect your judgment, thinking, or motor skills…Medicines like ABILIFY® (aripiprazole) can impact your body’s ability to reduce body temperature; you should avoid overheating and dehydration…ABILIFY and medicines like it have been associated with swallowing problems (dysphagia)…”

As overwhelming as this list appears, we have shortened it substantially. There is also a list of common side effects that at least 10 percent of the people taking the drug experienced during clinical trials: “Nausea, vomiting, constipation, headache, dizziness, an inner sense of restlessness or need to move (akathisia), anxiety, insomnia and restlessness.”

If your eyes glazed over long ago and your brain stopped paying attention, you’re in good company. Even doctors have a hard time sorting through the tremendously long list of side effects from prescription drugs.

A recent article in the Archives of Internal Medicine (May 23, 2011) talks about the dangers of “overwarning.” The average drug now comes with almost 100 listed side effects. The authors found that excessively long and complex lists of side effects lead to information overload.

Drug companies have observed that long lists of scary adverse reactions don’t deter people from asking for advertised drugs. In addition, by warning people about all possible complications, the firms may reduce the risk of a lawsuit if something bad happens.

Perhaps it’s time to just do away with drug ads entirely. Overwarning seems a lot like crying wolf. The resulting information doesn’t seem to serve patients or physicians very well.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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