March 23, 2005 -- When it comes to side effects from prescription drugs, commonly prescribed medications may prompt more complaints from older patients than potentially riskier ones.
Side effects can be dangerous. Patients can help avoid those problems by telling all their doctors about any prescription or over-the-counter preparations they take. That includes vitamins and herbal products. Of course, patients should also let their doctors know about any problems --physical or mental -- that arise while taking medicine.
'Good' or 'Bad' Drugs?
"These results mean that trying to eliminate dangerous side-effects in patients is difficult," says Emory University researcher Kimberly Rask, MD, PhD, in a news release. Rask, who worked on the study, doesn't dismiss any of the drugs.
"There isn't a simple distinction between 'bad' medicines that cause side effects and 'good' medicines that improve health," she says. "Instead, many important medicines that improve health can also have serious side effects."
Common Drugs, Common Side Effects
Rask and colleagues studied the rates of medication side effects in about 400 Medicare patients. All participants were at least 65 years old and lived in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Roughly half of the group was taking medications generally considered to have a higher risk of side effects in the age group. The other participants were taking common prescription drugs viewed as less risky.
In telephone surveys, nearly one out of four participants (24%) reported they'd had a side effect from their medication in the previous six months. A total of 134 side effects were reported.
The researchers show that seniors taking potentially riskier medications had no higher rates of side effects compared to seniors taking commonly prescribed drugs.
"The vast majority of adverse drug events were attributable to commonly prescribed medications," says the study.
None of the episodes were fatal, but four patients required hospitalization.
Here are most common side effects reported by participants, along with the number of cases:
- Gastrointestinal symptoms: 44
- Fatigue/dizziness: 31
- Limb pain or weakness: 19
- Medication not effective: 14
- Mouth/throat symptoms: 10
- Bleeding: 10
- Frequent urination/kidney problems: 10
- Peripheral edema: 6
- Mood alteration: 4
- Chest pain: 4
- Eye symptoms: 3
- Hot flashes: 3
- Other: 13
Most cases (79%) were reported to the patients' doctors and changes were made in prescriptions for most events (66%), according to the study.
Types of Drugs Linked With Side Effects
The study doesn't name specific drugs. Instead, it lists the drug type and number of adverse events:
- Heart disease medications: 38
- Pain relievers: 18
- Cholesterol-lowering drugs: 11
- Antidepressants: 8
- Blood thinners: 7
- Sedatives: 7
- Antibiotics: 7
- Water pills: 6
- Narcotic pain relievers: 5
- Drugs used for stomach or intestinal problems: 4
- Unknown: 9
- Other: 14
The study appears in the March issue of The American Journal of Managed Care.