Considering the ills of pills

It seems that every couple weeks or so the news is reporting on how another highly-touted drug is causing bad outcomes in its users. This week it was the drug Fosamax, which is used for the treatment of osteoporosis. It may be causing a higher risk of fractures after prolonged use.

The fact is that no medication is completely without potential side effects or adverse reactions. Medicines are chemicals. They have chemical effects on our bodies’ systems that are both beneficial and harmful.

For example, aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) interacts with the blood’s platelet cells to slow blood clotting. Therefore, it is used to help prevent heart attacks and strokes caused by blood clots in those that have had a heart attack or stroke.

However, aspirin doesn’t “know” to work on the platelets in just the heart and brain. When you take it, it works on all the platelets in your body. So it affects clotting throughout the body. Therefore it can lead to an increased risk of all bleeding for its users. It can also affect your stomach, interfering with your stomach’s natural protective barrier, leading to gastritis and ulcers.

Antibiotics are another classic example. An antibiotic is given to rid the body of an infection. But since the drug travels throughout the body, it can also kill the body’s helpful bacteria in the intestines and elsewhere, causing diarrhea and yeast infections.

If you look at the manufacturer’s list of precautions for any drug, you’ll see possible side effects that seem much worse than the condition for which you’re taking the medicine. Just listen to the end of the drug commercials on TV, “may cause headache, diarrhea, abdominal pain, dizziness, sexual dysfunction, etc…even death.” I often ask myself, “Why would anyone want to take this medicine after hearing that?”

In reality, every time we use a medicine we must decide, “Do the benefits of taking this drug outweigh the risks?” If it’s going to do more harm than good, we should choose another treatment. Fortunately, most severe side effects from drugs are rare. For example, millions of individuals take a daily aspirin for their heart without any ill effects or problems.

In the U.S., prescription drugs must undergo rigorous studies to determine if they are safe and effective for a given condition. Serious problems with the drug can be identified early through preliminary testing and its use halted if it is deemed too harmful. However, some detrimental effects may not be evident until the drug has been used for many years.

The bottom line is that medicines are truly life-savers. With them we can treat many conditions including infections, cancers, heart disease and diabetes, to name just a few. But with the good comes the bad.

Many of the common medical conditions that afflict Americans and necessitate medicinal treatment could be avoided with proper diet, exercise and avoidance of smoking. This includes the big three killers: heart disease, cancer and diabetes. So, if you hear this from your doctor, “Your blood pressure (or cholesterol, or blood sugar) is a little high, but if you watch your diet and exercise regularly, you can get this under control without medications,” you should do all you can to take control of your health.

The content in this column is for informational purposes only. Consult your physician for appropriate individual treatment. Dr. Reynolds practices Family Medicine in Chesterfield.

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