While watching television with my wife one evening a commercial came on for an antidepressant drug. After a short explanation of the drug’s benefits for someone already taking an antidepressant  the commercial started to warn of possible side effects from the drug. As I watched, the narrator stated the possible side effects of the drug which included an increased risk of death, cancer and all sorts of problems, none of them good. I turned to my wife and said, “why on earth would anyone take that drug.” I remember thinking that if one wasn’t depressed before taking the drug they certainly might be after hearing of all the side effects.

Just in case anyone thinks I might be exaggerating I taped the commercial and meticulously copied the drug’s warning. I won’t name the drug for fear of  discouraging anyone who might be taking the drug from taking their prescription. I also don’t want to name the drug for fear of a lawsuit from the drug manufacturer. More about lawsuits later.

What follows is the commercial’s side effects warning, word for word:

“Call your doctor if you have unusual changes in mood, behavior, or thoughts of suicide. Antidepressants can increase these in children, teens, and young adults. Elderly dementia patients taking  have an in******** **creased risk of death. Call your doctor if you have fever, stiff muscles and confusion as these may be signs of a life threatening reaction; or if you have uncontrollable muscle movement as these could become permanent. High blood sugar has been reported with ******** ** and medicines like it and in extreme cases can lead to coma and death. Your doctor should check for cataracts. Other risks include decreases in white blood cells which can be fatal. Seizure, increased cholesterol, weight gain, dizziness on standing, drowsiness, impaired judgment and trouble swallowing. Use caution when driving or operating machinery.”

Wow! Thoughts of suicide, increased risk of death, coma and death, a fatal decrease in white blood cells. Talk about depressing. If you weren’t suffering from depression before you certainly would be after reading about all the side effects. The commercial never really weighed the benefits of taking the drug against the possible risks and if I were a person for whom this drug was prescribed I would think twice before taking it. I am pretty sure the list of side effects was written by an attorney in an effort to prevent lawsuits should anyone develop severe side effects from taking the drug.

It may sound like I am being flippant about this but the effort by drug companies to list all possible side effects no matter how minute the risk in an effort to avoid getting sued has the negative effect of discouraging people from taking medicines that doctors prescribe. For example my mother when diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia refused to take a drug that the oncologist prescribed for her (see my blog WATCHING MOMMA DIE ) that might have extended her life because one of the side effects listed on the fact sheet was an increased risk of heart attack and she was afraid that she would die from a heart attack. It didn’t matter that the oncologist thought the drug held the best hope of extending her life for her. I myself have been reluctant to take certain drugs because of the possible side effects.

So what is one to do? The first thing is to discuss any prescription written for you with your doctor. Ask what the doctor knows about possible side effects, the degree of risk, and how the drug’s benefits outweigh the possible side effects. When you take the prescription to be filled take the time and effort to talk to the pharmacist about possible side effects and any possible interactions with any other drugs you are taking. I know that most pharmacies have computers that are supposed to look for interactions with other medicines you are taking but the reality is most pharmacists and their clerks don’t pay enough attention to any flags that the computer might send up. Don’t hesitate to ask to talk to the pharmacist filling the prescription. Never forget you are the customer and have a right to get the information you need. This also applies to prescriptions that are issued in hospitals. Don’t take it for granted that the hospital checks for interactions. When my mother was in the hospital during her illness I questioned a drug that was prescribed for her and after double checking with the pharmacist they found a conflict with another of her medicines and changed it. When getting a prescription from a commercial pharmacy be sure to read the fact sheet that comes with every prescription.

Most of all if you have any concerns at all discuss them with your doctor. It is your body and you are the final authority as to what goes in it.