Overview of Medicinal Side Effects
Occasionally, medicines intended to help us can cause unwanted side effects that introduce new symptoms. All of the physiological functions of our body are coordinated through an intricately balanced series of biochemical reactions, many of which cross paths, signal to one another, or use the same molecules in some fashion. Sometimes, if a medicine is taken to address a symptom caused by a problem in one of these biochemical reactions, it can cause a shift or a change in one of the others. Doctors must make many considerations about a person's current state of health as they are prescribing medicines, to avoid any serious complications from downstream interactions.
In people that take a lot of different medications, any possible interactions between the different medications must also be considered. Some medications may cause others to not work as well as they should in the presence of another, whereas other combinations of treatments may make symptoms worse for a patient or add new, more severe symptoms. One pattern that sometimes occurs in geriatric medicine is that rather than directly addressing the drug side effects or interactions, new drugs are prescribed to treat the side effects. This sort of strategy can spiral out of control very quickly, causing new symptoms, more prescriptions, ultimately stressing the body as it tries to find some sense of biochemical balance. Sometimes, supervised geriatric detoxification programs are necessary to wean the person off their medications one by one and begin with a clean slate.
Side effects and medicinal interactions are not limited to pharmaceutical drug prescriptions. Natural supplements and medicinal herbs can also cause side effects and have dangerous interactions with one another in the body. Although some these treatments are based on thousands of years of traditional medicine, these alternative treatments also shift the body's biochemistry in the same ways, and can thus cause similar side effects. Just as much research, practical and scientific, has gone into understanding and safely prescribing traditional medicines alone or in combination with one another
As an ever increasing number of people seek alternative medicines to complement their pharmaceutical medicine treatments, it is important to raise awareness about some of the interactions between these two types of medicines. Again, just because an alternative medicine is natural does not mean that it is safe to take with a pharmaceutical prescription drug. In seeking complementary medicines, it is important for you, the patient, to communicate with all your doctors about your symptoms, health goals, and any medications you are taking.
Symptoms of Medicinal Side Effects or Interactions
If you look at the information along with the pharmaceutical drug that your doctor has prescribed, it will typically have a long list of warnings about side effects. Some medications cause allergic reactions, for example, causing swelling, inflammation, rashes, and difficulties breathing or swallowing. Gastrointestinal distress is another common side effect, producing heartburn, indigestion, diarrhea, abdominal cramping, stomach pain, stomach bleeding, or constipation. Issues with the blood or cardiovascular system can also occur, causing the patient to experience very high or low blood pressure, anemia, heart palpitations, and erectile dysfunction. If blood clots develop, this may put a person at risk for stroke or heart attack. Chronic muscle or join pain, spasms, or swelling may also be experienced. Some medicines can also cause mental side effects, causing a person to become depressed, overly excited, confused, impulsive, anxious, aggressive, restless, or suicidal. At the heart of it, all these drugs are affecting our body's biochemistry, so they can potentially cause nearly any side effect that you can imagine.
As you begin taking new medications of any kind, it is important to note any sudden changes in your health, moods, or overall levels of energy. It is better to be safe and communicate with your doctor if you feel you may be experiencing a drug side effect or interaction than to risk permanent damage to your health.
Common Causes of Medicinal Side Effects and Interactions
Allergies are one of the most common causes of medicinal side effects. During an allergic response, the body perceives the drug as an invader, such as it does with pathogens, and the immune system responds in kind. These responses may cause symptoms typical of seasonal allergies, with sneezing, sinus inflammation, and respiratory problems. Drugs can also induce allergic responses more similar to those associated with food allergies, such as swelling of the face, mouth, and throat, abdominal pain, stomach cramps, and vomiting. Some of the most common pharmaceutical drug allergies include penicillin, sulfanomides (includes some antibiotics, diuretics, pain control drugs, such as Celebrex®, and many others), anesthetics (such as novacaine), and iodine. Sometimes, it is something in the drug preparation itself that causes the allergy, such as a preservative. Flu vaccines contain egg proteins left over from their preparations, so can cause severe allergic reactions in those with egg allergies.
A medicine can also cause undesired physiological changes that produce side effects, altering the body's hormonal, metabolic, and homeostatic balance. Thanks to the extensive testing that the Food and Drug Association requires for pharmaceutical drugs, many of these risks are known for standard prescription medicines. For complementary medicines, there is usually scientific information available from research studies, but many of them do not have FDA approval and lack official labeling of side effects. While these therapies can greatly benefit patients, it is critically important for the patient and their doctor to take responsibility for investigating and understanding the possible risks of side effects and negative interactions of these complementary medicines and herbal supplements.
Echinacea, for example, is often recommended to help ward off illnesses and infections. There have been many negative reactions reported, however, including hives, swelling, asthma attacks, and even anaphylactic shock. Because it appears to boost the immune response, it is also dangerous for those with autoimmune disorders to take, because it can worsen symptoms. Echinacea has also been shown to interfere with anesthesia in some patients. Feverfew is a medicinal herb often recommended for headaches, digestive problems, and arthritis. This is a dangerous herb for pregnant women to take, however, because it can induce uterine contractions and put the fetus at risk for spontaneous abortion.
Natural herbal remedies can also interfere or interact with pharmaceutical drugs to cause unpleasant side effects. Chamomile, echinacea, and milk thistle are known to effect liver function, for example, so may interfere with drugs helping to regulate liver enzymes. Licorice is also commonly included in supplements, but it may inadvertently raise a patient's blood pressure to cause hypertension or cause fluid buildup beneath the skin (edema), which can cause bleeding complications for patients on blood thinners. St. John's wort is a medicinal plant frequently taken for mild depression due to its effects on serotonin levels (which influence mood, among other things). In addition to the toxic effects it can cause on its own (inducing the dangerous serotonin syndrome), it can nullify the effectiveness of oral contraceptives, heart medications, and immunosuppressants given to transplant patients.
Patients Medical's Approach to Safe Treatment
We believe that natural treatments and medicines are better for the body than synthetic pharmaceutical medicines, though both can ultimately benefit the patient's overall health and well-being. As integrative physicians, we have developed deep understandings of both pharmaceutical and natural medicines, as well as the interplay they may have. We strive to combine these two kinds of treatments to come up with a safe, effective plan for helping you to achieve your health goals.
We keep our patients involved in all aspects of treatment design, making them aware of both the conventional and complementary supplements that are available. By educating our patients as we treat them, we can help them make informed choices and take personal responsibility for their health. We also encourage communication between all doctors involved in your treatment, whether from a conventional, alternative, or integrative background, to ensure the best possible care for you.
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