Your Health ;
; You may need prescription drugs.
; But millions suffer from their side effects.
; What you need to know to protect yourself.
By Patricia Barry
The symptoms were sudden and severe: tightness in the chest, dizziness, nausea. “I thought I was having a heart attack,” says Lynn Golden, a 59-year-old retired scientist living
in Maryland. Rushed to the emergency room,
she spent two days in the hospital having exhaustive tests that all proved negative. It was
only later that she discovered the cause—
unexpected side effects from a prescription drug
she’d started taking three weeks earlier to manage a mild thyroid condition.
Golden’s experience is a classic example of
how medications can cause other conditions
unrelated to the health problems they’re prescribed to treat. Unaware of this, patients very
often consult their doctors about this “new”
condition—only to be prescribed yet another
drug that could produce still more side effects.
This syndrome is known as a drug “cascade.”
It’s not as well studied as more dramatic prob-
lems with prescription drugs—such as when
apparently safe drugs turn out to be deadly—but
it is of growing concern. Experts estimate that
tens of millions of people are suffering every
day—often without know-
ing why. “There are a lot of
people taking drugs to treat
the side effects of drugs,”
says Gordon Schiff, M.D.,
an internist on the faculty
of Harvard Medical School
and associate director of
the Brigham Center for
Patient Safety Research and Practice in Boston.
“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 side effect of another drug, it gets to
be rather a house of cards.”
Adverse drug effects send about 4. 5 million
Americans to the doctor’s office or the emer-
gency room each year—more than for common
conditions like strep throat or pneumonia—ac-
cording to a recent study by the federal Agency
for Healthcare Research and Quality. The Na-
tional Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medi-
cine estimates that serious drug reactions oc-
cur more than 2 million times each year among
patients in hospitals and are the fourth leading
cause of hospital deaths, topped only by heart
disease, cancer and stroke.
that tens of
millions of people
are suffering every
reported are only the tip
of the iceberg, experts say.
“There are tens of millions
of milder reactions, some
of which are quite damaging to people even though
they’re medically regarded
as minor,” says Donald W.
Light, a medical sociologist
and editor of The Risks of Prescription Drugs, a
book that reviews current evidence of medication problems.
Milder symptoms such as drowsiness, sleeplessness, muscle aches, dizziness, nausea and
bouts of depression may be more troubling than
they are dangerous. Yet, Light says, studies show
drugs that affect people’s sense of balance or
slow their reactions are a major cause of falls
and road accidents. Even gastric problems or
muscle pain can seriously affect mobility and
mood, hampering work, activities and family
Why do drugs prescribed for a specific health
problem trigger other health problems? Errors
made by doctors, pharmacists, hospitals—and
patients themselves—are a major problem. But
even if all errors were avoided, knotty issues
remain, including bad interactions among dif-