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Drugs: Read Fine Print to Avoid Side Effects

Pat awoke one recent morning with cold symptoms. She reached into her medicine cabinet for a well-known over-the-counter cold remedy she had often used in the past.

An hour later, Pat was on the phone to her doctor, describing in a panicky voice the heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and blurry vision she was experiencing.

It turned out that Pat, whose doctor had recently put her on a prescription antidepressant, was experiencing the frightening results of an interaction between the two drugs. Fortunately, the effects were mild and wore off within a few hours.

But Pat's experience illustrates the value of reading the information that comes with all drugs, both prescription and over-the-counter medications. If Pat had read the circular that came with her prescription, she would have known not to take the sinus medication with her new prescription medication.

You see plenty of this type of medication information these days, because many manufacturers of prescription drugs regularly advertise in magazines, newspapers, television, and other media. Such information is also available with over-the-counter drugs and with any prescription drugs you may use. The FDA and the Federal Trade Commission have regulations requiring which warnings about side effects and interactions must be included in advertising. If your pharmacist doesn't hand you an information leaflet with your prescription, don't hesitate to ask for it.

Are you supposed to read all of it?

Increasing numbers of consumers are asking that question these days. In fact, the "fine print" is what's officially known in the industry as "Prescribing Information" or "Patient Information." It's required by the FDA to balance claims made in the actual drug advertisement.

Experts agree that consumers who want to be fully informed should read the fine print connected with any drug that they intend to use.

Prescribing information contains the necessary information for the safe and effective use of a prescription drug. Prescribing information is used by health care professionals. You can also use this information to learn:

  • The diseases or conditions the drug treats.

  • The dose needed.

  • Which patients should not receive the drug.

  • Other drugs that should not be taken together with the drug.

  • Side effects that can occur.

  • How the drug should be stored.

This information might at first appear to be a bit frightening. FDA regulations require drug advertisements to carry a list of every side effect that occurred during testing, whether it affected 25 out of 100 patients or just 1 out of 5,000 patients. For example, the Patient Information that accompanies a magazine ad for a typical drug might state that the drug can cause dry mouth, dizziness, blurred vision and even hepatitis, a sometimes-fatal liver disease.

That may sound like a good reason to avoid the drug, but you need to put the information into context, experts say. Given the right circumstances, every drug can causes side effects--even aspirin.

Under no circumstances should you use either drug advertisements or the package inserts that come with most medication to diagnose yourself or decide whether a particular prescription drug is appropriate for your situation. If you are not sure if the information you read applies to you or want help interpreting what you read, be sure to ask your doctor or pharmacist.