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Wednesday, 27 April 2011 13:15

Just Say No (to Prescription Drugs)

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Last year my mom was rushed to the emergency room within minutes after taking a drug for a sinus infection. Her doctor said it was unlikely that it was from the medication, despite the fact that the symptoms happened immediately upon taking the first pill. After doing some research, I found many others who had experienced the same side effects. Despite best intentions, doctors, the FDA, and pharmaceutical companies do not have all the answers. You need to watch out for your own best interests.

My mom is not alone. Each year, an estimated two million Americans are hospitalized from adverse reactions to prescription medication and over 100,000 Americans actually die from these drugs. These numbers are on the rise as the 200 billion dollar pharmaceutical industry continues to be one of the richest industries in the world. In 2002, the ten American drug companies listed in Fortune 500 earned $35.9 billion in profits—greater than the profits of the other 490 companies combined. These drug companies had an average net profit of 18.5 percent. The other fortune 500 companies averaged only 3.3 percent. It is interesting to note that the U.S. is one of only two countries (the other being New Zealand) that allows direct to consumer advertising, such as television and prints ads, for pharmaceutical drugs.

Americans are supporting this big business, with the use of medications doubling in the past decade from 7 to 14 prescriptions on average annually per person. The frightening thing is that we are also drugging our children. In recent years, prescription spending rose faster for children than for any other group. Teenage prescription drug abuse is on the rise as well. In 2005, 2.1 million teens abused prescription drugs. Melody Petersen in Our Daily Meds gives a detailed and disturbing account of the influence of pharmaceuticals in this country.

In this country, we tend to accept whatever prescription our doctor gives us, without doing our own research on whether it is right for us to take. There are numerous, serious side effects to many medications. There are also complications with certain medications when taken in conjunction with other prescription drugs. We often do not realize that we feel sick because of the drugs we are taking. In addition, these drugs are often simply masking our symptoms without getting to the root of the problem.

There are even secondary negative effects to consider from prescription medications because they end up in our water supply through improper disposal and bodily discharge. Over 80 percent of waterways tested in the U.S. show traces of common medications such as acetaminophen, hormones, blood pressure medication, codeine, and antibiotics. Studies show these traces of the drugs are impacting aquatic life. The fewer medications we use, the fewer disposed in our environment to impact our health.

We have a false sense of security that if a drug is approved, it must be safe. There have been many drugs removed from the market after they were shown to be fatal. Vioxx, a drug by Merck, was approved by the FDA in 1999. It was marketed as a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug used to treat osteoarthritis and acute pain conditions. Internal studies at Merck showed that Vioxx did not relieve pain any better than the far cheaper over-the-counter ibuprofen options, but Merck still launched and marketed the drug. Within a year after its release, the FDA noted problems with the drug’s side effects, notably heart attacks, cardiac deaths, and strokes, and required Merck to add a warning label. Merck had already identified these issues with the drug—two years before its release.

Vioxx remained on the market, with Merck spending 160 million dollars on advertising in one year. The company did its best to manage the increasing concern for the side effects, even training its sales force on how to “dodge” questions about the growing evidence of cardiovascular incidents related to the drug. Vioxx was finally pulled in 2004 after substantial litigation and media attention. Merck made $2.5 billion in sales revenue during its five years on the market. The gains came at a steep price; worldwide, 100,000 people died from the drug. Unfortunately, Vioxx is not an isolated example. There are many others.

This is not to say that all prescription drugs are inherently bad. There may be a time and place for medication. In fact, in some cases, it may be the most effective solution. For example, rescue medications for serious asthma attacks and severe allergic reactions can be real life-savers. However, the important point is for us to be empowered health consumers and take medications mindfully—this includes prescription drugs as well as over-the-counter medicines. Do the research. Find out about the side effects and pay attention while you are taking the drug to see if you are experiencing any of them.

AskAPatient.com, operated by Consumer Health Resource Group, is a great resource for finding out about side effects that other people have experienced from over 4,000 FDA approved prescription drugs. Ask your doctor and do your own research to find out whether a new drug you have been prescribed will interfere with any other medications you are taking or aggravate any health conditions you have. It is important to realize that even though the chemistry of the drug may be well understood, the chemistry of how it interacts within our bodies vary by individual. Because we each have our own biochemical individuality, there is no set reaction of how a drug will work in your body. It is important to understand that just because a certain medication worked without side effects for a friend or family member, does not mean it will work the same for you.

Before reaching for the medications, try exploring natural ways to take care of health concerns—for you, your family, and even your pets. Natural remedies can often be just as effective without the side effects. For example, exercise in combination with weight loss can reduce the odds of developing diabetes by 58 percent, nearly double the rate of success of diabetes medication (31 percent). There are numerous ideas throughout this book offering natural ways to promote health to reduce the need to turn to prescription drugs.

Your body is an amazing self-healer. Give it the time it needs without reaching for the antibiotics if you feel a sniffle coming on. As Voltaire, a French writer and satirist said, "The art of medicine consists of keeping the patient amused while nature heals the disease." Think twice about putting potentially harmful pills into your body unless you absolutely have to. Research how your condition can be treated naturally and look into all drugs before consuming.

Next time you are given a prescription drug, will you “just say maybe”?

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