How much do we really know about the side effect of the medicines we take? When the pharmacist gives us our medications, they also attach a medical information sheet. I personally have never read one of these information sheets and doubt that many other people do.
I think it is great that the FDA and our medical providers would like us educated about the medicines we take. However, most of us do not have medical and pharmacological knowledge and therefore do not understand the information provided in the one or two sheets that accompany our medications.
‘HOUSE OF CARDS’
Not understanding our medications and their side-effects can cause very serious issues.
Gordon Schiff, M.D., an internist on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School and associate director of the Brigham Center for Patient Safety Research and Practice in Boston, stated, “There are a lot of people taking drugs to treat the side effects of drugs, and sometimes that makes sense, and maybe the initial drug is essential. But when you’re taking a drug to treat the side effect of a drug which is treating the sided effect of another drug, it gets to be rather a house of cards.”
A CLASSIC EXAMPLE
My mother has what her doctors call atypical Parkinsonism syndrome. She takes a number of medications that have unfavorable side effects. Some make her feels as if her toes are continuously curling and uncurling. Other medications make her calf muscle ache, tighten and make it difficult for her to do her Pilates and tai chi.
My mother’s experience is a classic example of how medications can cause other conditions unrelated to the health problems they’re prescribed to treat.
SIDE EFFECTS CAN BE SERIOUS
While my mother has become acutely aware of the side effects of her medications, many people may not be so aware of their medication side effects. Many patients often consult their doctors about the onset of new condition — only to be prescribed yet another drug that could produce still more side effects.
This syndrome is known as a drug cascade.
Drug reaction occurs millions times per year and is the fourth-leading cause of hospital deaths preceded only by heart disease, cancer and stroke. (Patricia Barry, “The Side Effects of the Side Effects,” AARP, September 2011).
The issuance of medications to treat the side effects of the initial medication is known as cascade syndrome and it is happening at an alarming rate — 4.5 million Americans are treated for adverse drug effects per year. That’s more than medications for strep throat or pneumonia, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
WHY IT’S A PROBLEM
Why is this such a big problem?
Well, that’s complicated. There are a multitude of reasons. For example, testing of medications is generally performed on younger people due to fewer complications from already existing medical issues. So, when elder folks take medications tested on younger adults, the side effects of that medication are difficult to determine; that is until the older patient actually is administered that medication.
Eventually, the patient will show up at his or her internist’s office complaining of a side effect from the original medication, oftentimes resulting in a new medication to treat that new problem and not realizing that it may be a side effect from the original medication. If that sounds complicated, just think what it must be like for a physician who must diagnosis this problem when few, if any, studies have shown those side effects to be present.
Needless to say, this is a serious problem, and one that is not easily solved. AARP has listed a few ideas:
• If you experience a change that doesn’t feel right, then tell your doctor. Ask if the symptom could be a drug side effect.
• If you’re taking several drugs, ask your doctor or pharmacist to review them. Ask if there can be interaction problems with your drugs and even vitamins and supplements.
• Ask if there are lifestyle changes you can make instead of taking a drug. Very often patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes can minimize side effects or avoid drugs altogether by losing weight, exercising more and stopping smoking.
• Ask to be prescribed drugs that have been on the market for at least seven years. It often takes 5 to 10 years for serious side effects of a new drug to show up in the general population.
• Ask why the doctor is prescribing a particular drug. Find out what the risks and benefits are compared to alternative drugs.
• Don’t stop taking a drug without consulting your doctor.
• Review your medications online. Use AARP’s Drug Interaction Checker at www.aarp.org/healthtools.
Judson Haims is the owner of Visiting Angels Home Care in Eagle County. For more information, go to www.visitingangels.com/comtns or call 970-328-5526.