Drugs: Read Fine Print to Avoid Side Effects

Pat awoke one recent morning with cold symptoms. She reached into her medicine cabinet for a well-known, over-the-counter cold treatment she had often used in the past.

An hour later, Pat was on the phone to her health care provider's office. She told the nurse that her heart was beating unusually fast. She also had shortness of breath and blurry vision.

Pat's health care provider had recently put her on a prescription antidepressant. She was feeling the frightening result of 1 drug reacting with another drug. Fortunately, the effects were mild and wore off within a few hours.

Pat's experience shows how reading the information that comes with all drugs, both prescription and over-the-counter medications, can help you avoid problems. If Pat had read the information paper that came with her prescription, she would have known not to take the cold medicine with her new prescription medication.

These days it's common to see this information in prescription drug ads in magazines, newspapers, television, and other media. Such information is also available in the packages of over-the-counter drugs and any prescription drugs you may use. The FDA and the Federal Trade Commission have rules requiring which warnings about side effects and interactions must be included in advertising. Your pharmacist should hand you a paper with this information when you get your prescription. If not, be sure to ask for it.

Are you supposed to read all of it?

The "fine print" in these papers is what's known as "Prescribing Information" or "Patient Information." It's required by the FDA to balance the information a company puts in its drug advertisement.

Experts agree that people who want to know as much as they can should read the fine print that comes with any drug that they plan to use.

Prescribing and Patient Information papers tell you how to use the drug safely and effectively. Health care professionals use this information, too. You can also use the patient information to learn:

  • The diseases or conditions the drug treats

  • The dose needed

  • Who should not receive the drug

  • Other medications that should not be used when taking the drug

  • Possible side effects

  • How the drug should be stored

This information might at first appear to be a bit confusing. FDA rules say that drug advertisements must have a list of every side effect that happened during testing. For example, the patient information in a magazine ad for a typical drug might say that the drug can cause dry mouth, dizziness, and blurred vision. Or even hepatitis, a sometimes deadly liver disease.

That may sound like a good reason to avoid the drug. But you need to look at the information in the correct way, experts say. Every drug — even aspirin — can cause side effects in the right circumstances.

If you are not sure if the information you read applies to you or want help figuring out what you read, be sure to ask your health care provider or pharmacist.

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