All drugs have the potential to cause side effects, but doctors aren’t always adept at informing patients about them, says Joe Graedon, a pharmacologist and author of more than 15 books about drugs, including “Best Choices From the People’s Pharmacy.”
The Food and Drug Administration requires every prescription drug to come with a leaflet describing possible side effects, but this document is mostly intended for medical professionals.
“It’s not written in a way that’s easy for patients to understand,” says Maria Marzella Mantione, a pharmacist and associate clinical professor at St. John’s University in New York. A package insert might list dozens of adverse effects, but it won’t tell you which ones are most likely to happen to you, Mantione says.
Several Web sites aim to help. Graedon’s People’s Pharmacy site provides detailed information about side effects and a place for patients to share their experiences with various medications. For instance, a class of blood pressure drugs called angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors is known to provoke a dry, tickly cough, and yet doctors often neglect to warn patients about this, Graedon says. People suddenly develop an incessant cough, but they don’t realize it’s being caused by their blood pressure medicine, he says.
The FDA collects data on side effects via its MedWatch program. Anyone — doctors, pharmacists, nurses, patients, family members — can report an adverse drug event via the program’s Web site or the new MedWatcher app. That app also allows you to view safety data on your medications and subscribe to updates on specific drugs. “If a new scientific report comes out about your drug, you’ll be alerted right away,” says Clark Freifeld, a computer scientist at Children’s Hospital Boston and a founder of Epidemico, the app’s developer.
AdverseEvents, based in Healdsburg, Calif., compiles MedWatch data into a searchable database. At the company’s Web site, you can look up information on your drug, including the 10 most commonly reported side effects and the average age and the sex of patients who have had an adverse reaction. The site also allows visitors to type in a specific side effect and find out which drugs have been associated with it.
The RxIsk Web site also presents MedWatch information in a searchable, user-friendly format, and it can help you figure out if the drugs you’re taking are affecting your skin, hair or nails, or if they’ve been linked to violent behavior, suicide or sexual side effects. The RxIsk reporting tool walks users through a list of questions designed to assess the likelihood that a symptom is actually related to the drug. Based on these answers, the site generates a risk score and a report that patients can share with their health-care provider.