Do you take 4 pills a day? If so, you’re like most Americans. Yet what are we taking all these pills for, and are they improving our lives?
The overuse of prescription drugs has become a serious problem in the US. We hear about this most in the context of opioids — narcotic painkillers whose widespread use and abuse has become a national crisis.
The overuse of antibiotics has also become the focus of an intensive campaign to steer doctors and patients to more judicious use.
The soaring use of prescription drugs has been driven by several factors: A plethora of new drugs coming to the market; a culture that has come to expect a “pill for every ill”; aggressive marketing to both doctors and consumers by the pharmaceutical industry; and treating some “pre-”diseases with pills rather than with lifestyle changes.
Between 1997 and 2016, the number of prescriptions filled in the US increased 85% — from 2.4 billion to 4.5 billion — even though the population increased by just 21%. Nearly half (49%) of adults take at least 1 prescription drug, 23% take 3 or more and about 12% take 5 or more, according to the latest data from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). One in 10 adults takes 10 or more drugs, and the average adult takes 4 prescription medications, according to a Consumer Reports survey of 1,947 adults conducted in April.
What can you do to make sure you’re not getting a drug you don’t need and to avoid harm?
Ten “secret shoppers” were sent to 45 drugstores across the US in a recent Consumer Reports investigative study. The shoppers were testing how well pharmacists identified potential problems with drugs.
Of course, it’s your doctor who should be your main consultant on the medicines you take. But bring a big measure of skepticism to your doctor visits: The evidence is now clear that they can be a part of the problem.
Based on the secret shoppers’ findings and more than a decade of Consumer Reports’ grant-funded Best Buy Drugs program, we have compiled a list of drugs that you should use special caution with when prescribed by your healthcare provider.
Abilify and Seroquel for Dementia or ADHD
These powerful antipsychotics have potent sedative effects and can be downright dangerous. Studies over the last decade show they have been overprescribed in general and particularly for elderly people with dementia.
The FDA and other healthcare and physician organizations now advise against their use entirely in elderly people. Multiple studies over many years have found an increased risk of death in elderly people prescribed these drugs.
Abilify (aripiprazole) and Seroquel (quetiapine) are also overprescribed to treat children and adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The two drugs are not even approved for this condition. Their use to treat ADHD is not advisable unless a person is diagnosed with other psychiatric conditions, such as bipolar disorder. And even then, caution is warranted. Behavioral therapy is a better initial treatment for ADHD.
Advil, Aleve, Celebrex and Any Opioid for Back and/or Joint Pain
The non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) Advil (ibuprofen), Aleve (naproxen) and Celebrex (celecoxib) are commonly prescribed to treat back and joint pain (and headaches, of course). Short-term use — up to 10 days — is fine at the lowest dose that helps.
But long-term use — which is all too common — is ill-advised because all these drugs can cause bleeding in the intestines and stomach, and increase the risk of heart attack and stroke (especially at higher doses).
Opioids should simply never be a first-line treatment for either chronic back pain or garden-variety periodic back pain (“I threw my back out” kind of pain). The risks are too high. The side effects include drowsiness, sedation, nausea, vomiting, constipation, addiction and overdose. Instead, try yoga, swimming, gentle stretches, tai chi, massage, physical therapy, acupuncture or heat.
For intense pain flare-ups (pain in the range of 8 to 10 on a 10-point scale), an opioid can be useful, but it should be prescribed at the lowest dose that’s effective and for the shortest time possible, like a day or 2. And never more than a week to 10 days.
Celexa, Cymbalta, Lexapro and Prozac for Mild Depression
Antidepressants are overprescribed for people who have mild or so-called “situational” depression — that is, depression triggered by a life event such as a death in the family, job loss, divorce or breakup, accident, trauma or diagnosis with a serious health condition.
You don’t need a pill if these life events befall you. Social support, time and psychotherapy or counseling almost always help. Also, be sure to exercise and perhaps try meditation and/or yoga. For the vast majority of people who have situational depression, the symptoms lift within a few weeks to a couple months.
Nexium, Prevacid and Prilosec for Heartburn
These drugs, called proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs), reduce stomach acid. They were designed to treat a condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). But they are greatly overprescribed for common, uncomplicated heartburn, which most of the time can be just as effectively treated with over-the-counter (OTC) products such as Maalox, Pepcid AC, Tums or Zantac 75.
The problem with taking PPIs is that they carry serious risks — a few of which were not fully appreciated until a few years ago. These include a reduction in the body’s ability to absorb certain nutrients and medications, along with an increased risk of gastrointestinal and other infections.
Instead, as a first-line treatment, eat smaller meals, don’t lie down soon after eating, lose excess weight, and avoid acidic or greasy meals that trigger heartburn.
If heartburn occurs twice weekly or more for 4 weeks or longer despite the above diet and lifestyle changes, then you might have damaged your esophagus. Check with your doctor, and if GERD is diagnosed, it would be appropriate to take a PPI for a few months while your esophagus heals.
Ambien, Belsomra and Lunesta for Insomnia
These strong sleeping pills are way overprescribed for people who have insomnia triggered by a life event, as well as for people who have chronic insomnia.
If you find yourself in the first group, try an OTC sleep aid containing an antihistamine, but not for longer than a few days. People with chronic insomnia are not helped in the long term by taking these medicines, recent evidence shows. Instead, try cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), where a provider teaches you good sleep habits and suggests ways to change your behavior and nighttime habits.
Prescription medicines have significant side effects and risks, including dizziness, next-day drowsiness, impaired driving, dependence, and worsened sleeplessness when you try to stop.
AndroGel, Axiron, Androderm and Aveed for Low Testosterone
Low testosterone (“low T”) is a controversial diagnosis. If you get such a diagnosis and your doctor advises you to take any of these medicines, get a second opinion.
A small percentage of men (usually in their 50s, 60s and 70s) have “low T,” but the manufacturers of these products have sought to create a condition that is not firmly established in medical literature — one marked by low energy and low sex drive due to “low testosterone.”
Don’t buy into it. The drugs can cause blood clots in the legs, sleep apnea, an enlarged prostate and possibly an increased risk of heart attack or stroke.
Instead, talk to your doctor about treating common underlying conditions that can decrease testosterone level, such as diabetes, obesity and aging. Also discuss non-drug ways to boost energy and vitality by exercising, getting enough sleep and couples therapy with your partner.
Actonel, Boniva and Fosamax to Treat Osteopenia (Low Bone Density)
These drugs, called bisphosphonates, are widely prescribed to treat a condition dubbed “pre-osteoporosis.” But there’s scientific controversy about the prevalence and impact of mildly or marginally low bone density, and whether it warrants treatment with these strong medicines.
All have side effects and carry risks, which include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, heartburn, esophageal irritation and bone, joint or muscle pain. Long-term use has also been linked to an increased risk of fractures of the femur (thigh bone).
Before considering one of these medicines, walk more, quit smoking and try eating more foods high in calcium and vitamin D. If bone density tests show you have full-blown osteoporosis, you should consider one of these medicines. But use caution with long-term use.
Detrol and Oxytrol for “Overactive Bladder”
The sudden or frequent need to pee is frustrating and inconvenient. These medicines, called anticholinergics, are often prescribed even to people who have mild symptoms.
The drugs can cause constipation, blurred vision, dizziness and confusion. So before trying one, cut back on caffeine, soft drinks and alcohol, and watch your liquid intake overall. Also, try bladder training (slowly increasing the time between bathroom visits) and Kegel exercises — repeatedly tightening and relaxing the muscles that stop urine flow. These techniques have been proven effective.
If several weeks or months of non-drug strategies don’t provide enough relief, consider an anticholinergic.
Actos and Glucophage for “Pre-diabetes”
Pre-diabetes is a widely accepted condition (unlike “low T”), but there’s no consensus on how aggressively to treat it, or if people with it should take drugs. People with pre-diabetes have blood glucose (sugar) levels at the high end of normal.
Because these diabetes medicines have side effects and carry risks — including dizziness, fatigue, muscle pain and, in rare cases, the dangerous buildup of lactic acid and a vitamin B12 deficiency — talk to your doctor about non-drug options first, such as exercise, a diet rich in unprocessed and non-starchy foods, and weight loss.
If you develop type 2 diabetes, however, you should consider a diabetes drug.
Drugs to treat Pre-hypertension
Like pre-diabetes, pre-hypertension is an accepted condition that warrants monitoring. It’s defined as blood pressure at the high end of normal. But, also like pre-diabetes, there’s no consensus on when to treat it with drugs.
Many classes of medicines are used. They include ACE inhibitors, angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs), calcium channel blockers and diuretics. All are effective at lowering blood pressure but have side effects. Diuretics can cause frequent urination, low potassium levels and erectile dysfunction. ACE inhibitors and ARBs can cause high potassium levels and reduced kidney function. Calcium channel blockers can cause dizziness, an abnormal heartbeat, flushing, headache, swollen gums and, less often, breathing problems.
Unless a patient has other conditions that make the case for starting a drug, non-drug options are a better initial treatment to bring blood pressure into the normal range. Most important among them: Quit smoking, cut back on sodium and alcohol, lose excess weight, and exercise.
Belviq, Contrave, Qsymia and Xenical for Obesity
These weight loss drgs have mixed effectiveness. They work for some people and not at all for others. For patients who are significantly overweight or have diabetes or heart disease, and have been unable to lose weight through exercise and diet, one of these medicines may be worth trying.
But the drugs should not be a first-line treatment for anyone who is just 10 to 20 pounds overweight and hasn’t yet really tried lifestyle and diet changes. All have side effects that are common and can be quite discomforting. Constipation, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting are common.
The drugs also carry rare but dangerous risks, including leaky heart valves with Belviq and liver damage with Xenical.
Americans are all too often pushed — or rushed — into taking drugs too soon. Sure, lifestyle changes can be hard. But they don’t have side effects and the risks are well defined and easily avoidable. And the payoff from adopting a much healthier diet or sticking to an exercise regimen often goes well beyond addressing the medical condition at hand and improves your overall physical and mental health.
Steven Findlay is an independent medical and health policy journalist and a contributing editor/writer for Consumer Reports. He derives some of his posts and insights from Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs, a grant-funded public information and education program that evaluates prescription drugs based on authoritative, peer-reviewed research.