The Side Effects of Side Effects

Suzanne B. Robotti
Suzanne B. Robotti Executive Director

We have all seen the TV ads for popular prescription drugs and side effects. One shows a young woman running through a field with butterflies all around her. Another familiar ad zooms in from the back to capture an attractive older couple sitting in adjacent bath tubs on the beach (who lugs two bathtubs to the beach, anyway?).

Just as these bucolic scenes penetrate the brain, we hear a calm authoritative voice go through a long list of potential side effects of these miracle drugs, anything from a mild upset stomach to blood pressure fluctuations to death.

But why do drugs have to have these dreadful side effects? There are many reasons, but the most straightforward is that it is difficult to get a drug to interact with only one part of a body. Drugs have an effect on the whole body and while you might be prescribed a drug for one symptom, that medicine will interact with all of your body’s systems, creating more symptoms.

The Codeine Example

For example, codeine is generally prescribed for moderate pain. It’s an opiate and works by blocking the pain receptors in your brain and slows your body’s systems. Codeine is also used in some prescription cough syrups because it calms the spasms of a cough. Because codeine (and all opiates) slow down all the systems in your body, it can cause constipation — it will relax the “ripples of muscle contractions and relaxations that move food along the digestive tract,” as the New York Times put it in a recent Q&A.

Here’s another thing about medicines and side effects — one drug leads to another. Because constipation can be a serious health condition, doctors may offer a second prescription, naloxone, which counters the effects of opioids on digestive receptors. How so? Naloxone unblocks the pain receptors that the codeine blocked, so you feel the pain for which you were given the codeine that led to the constipation.

Lactulose is an over-the-counter constipation remedy. It’s less strong and seems as if it should be safe because it is a synthetic sugar. When it gets to your colon, it will pull liquid out of the walls of the colon, easing constipation. However, because of its method of action in your body, it can cause stomach pain and cramping, gas, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. You get the idea!

The Medicine ROI (side effects)

When you go to the doctor for a pain medication and the doctor offers a prescription, whether for codeine or any other medicine, consider this: How long will the pain last if unmedicated? Can you tolerate the pain? What are the side effects of the medicine? Are the side effects worth the relief? Will the side effects of this prescription cause you to seek another drug? Are there alternative drugs or physical therapy and lifestyle changes that would help mitigate your pain?

Is my doctor’s advice the right medical decision for me? Or do I need to do my own research and conduct a risk/benefit analysis? We are all consumers and advocates, and if there is one product category that requires a pro/con analysis, it’s prescription drugs.

DISCLAIMER: MedShadow provides information and resources related to medications, their effects, and potential side effects. However, it is important to note that we are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The content on our site is intended for educational and informational purposes only. Individuals dealing with medical conditions or symptoms should seek guidance from a licensed healthcare professional, such as a physician or pharmacist, who can provide personalized medical advice tailored to their specific circumstances.

While we strive to ensure the accuracy and reliability of the information presented on MedShadow, we cannot guarantee its completeness or suitability for any particular individual's medical needs. Therefore, we strongly encourage users to consult with qualified healthcare professionals regarding any health-related concerns or decisions. By accessing and using MedShadow, you acknowledge and agree that the information provided on the site is not a substitute for professional medical advice and that you should always consult with a qualified healthcare provider for any medical concerns.

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