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Consumer Reports Insights: Women are at risk of taking drugs unnecessarily

Although nearly half of all Americans take a prescription medication, more women take them than men — about 36 percent more, according to a recent Consumer Reports survey. That could be because women go to doctors about a third more often than men do. But those extra visits can result in women ending up on drugs they don’t need. Here are some that are often overused, and here’s why women should think twice before taking them.

Bisphosphonates

Examples: Alendronate (Fosamax and its generic cousins), ibandronate (Boniva), risedronate (Actonel and generics).

For women diagnosed with osteopenia, or pre-osteoporosis, the limited help these bone-building drugs can offer might not be worth the risk of rare but serious side effects, including an abnormal heart rhythm; esophageal ulcers; the loss of bone in the jaw; severe bone, joint and muscle pain; and even thigh fractures. Even among women with osteoporosis, the benefit is fairly limited. Safer measures include getting plenty of calcium (1,200 milligrams a day for women age 50 and older) and Vitamin D (600 international units if you’re 70 or younger, 800 IU if you’re older than 70), and doing regular weight-bearing exercise such as walking.

Statins

Examples: Atorvastatin (Lipitor), lovastatin (Mevacor and generics), pravastatin (Pravachol and generics).

Multiple studies have found that these cholesterol-lowering drugs don’t prolong life for women who have elevated LDL (bad) cholesterol but no other cardiovascular risk factors. And it’s not clear whether the drugs even lower the risk of heart attacks in that group. Statins can cause muscle pain and liver damage, and increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes. Low-risk women should generally skip them in favor of other steps that can help reduce cardiovascular risks, such as quitting smoking, eating a healthful diet and exercising.

Narcotic drugs

Examples: Codeine; oxycodone (OxyContin and generics), oxycodone with acetaminophen (Percocet and generics).

Women take almost 50 percent more narcotic pain relievers than men. That’s risky, since long-term use of narcotics can actually increase sensitivity to pain. They can also cause such side effects as drowsiness, nausea and constipation. And in one study, older adults who took opioids had more bone fractures and higher rates of hospitalization than those who used other pain relievers. Depending on the type of pain, alternative treatments include acupuncture, chiropractic manipulation, massage, or physical therapy; exercise; and occasional use of over-the-counter pain relievers. For chronic pain, women should talk with their doctor about prescription drugs that are safer than opioids.

Proton pump inhibitors

Examples: Esomeprazole (Nexium), lansoprazole (Prevacid and generics), omeprazole (Prilosec and generics).

Many experts think these drugs are widely overused for garden-variety heartburn, and women take 40 percent more of them than men. They can increase the risk of bone fractures, pneumonia and infection with Clostridium difficile, a potentially deadly bacteria. And abruptly stopping them can lead to rebound heartburn. For occasional bouts of heartburn, try a basic antacid such as Mylanta, Rolaids or Tums. In addition, eat smaller meals and avoid lying down until two hours after eating.

Copyright 2011. Consumers Union of United States Inc.

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