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Shocking drug side effects

Drugs you take could cause a new shopping addiction, green pee, disappearing fingerprints, and other strange symptoms

Published: October 2013

Listening to the long and scary list of possible side effects in TV ads for drugs—uncontrollable bowel movements, cancer, even death—can make you want to swear off most pharmaceuticals for good. Well, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are lots of shocking potential drug side effects that you won’t hear about in ads; you’ll have to read the fine print that comes with your prescription.

As we’ve reported before, reading those package inserts will tell you, for example, that topical bimatoprost (Latisse) can help you grow longer, fuller eyelashes, but could also turn your eyes a darker shade of brown. And if your man is using AndroGel for low testosterone, be warned that he could burst into flames if he’s not careful. It’s flammable!

Other drug side effects may be less dramatic, but they’re still important to know, so we’ve put together a list. But it isn’t comprehensive; all of the drugs can cause problems other than the ones we mention. Also, keep in mind that medications affect people in different ways, so talk with your doctor if you experience symptoms after starting a drug, even if they’re not listed on the package insert. And never stop taking any medication without talking to your doctor first, because that could cause other health problems.

Sleep eating


Caused by: Some sleep medications, including eszopiclone (Lunesta), ramelteon (Rozerem), and zolpidem (Ambien, Ambien CR, Edluar, Zolpimist, and generic).


What happens: In addition to eating, making calls, having sex, and driving—all while sleeping—some people taking these drugs have experienced memory lapses and hallucinations. Also, the drugs can linger in the body until the next morning, affecting your ability to drive or do other tasks requiring alertness. In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration reported that it had received about 700 reports of people whose driving ability was impaired or who were in an auto accident after taking the sleep drug zolpidem. As a result of those reports and data from clinical trials, drugmakers were told to cut in half the recommended dose of zolpidem in these drugs and warn people who use the extended-release version (Ambien CR) not to drive at all the day after taking it. The FDA is looking into whether similar changes are warranted for other sleep drugs. Women are especially at risk for side effects because the drugs leave their system slower than in men.


What to do: If nondrug remedies don’t work for your sleep problems, you could try an over-the-counter drug that contains diphenhydramine (Benadryl Allergy, Sominex, Unisom, and generic) occasionally. Next-day drowsiness can occur, so be careful when driving. Exceeding the recommended dose or mixing sleep drugs with other medications or alcohol can increase the risk of side effects.


Uncontrollable bowel movements


Caused by: The weight-loss drug orlistat, the active ingredient in the OTC drug Alli and the prescription drug Xenical.


What happens: Orlistat works by blocking fat absorption, which means that your body has to do something with the dietary fat it’s unable to use. Virtually everyone who takes orlistat has some diarrhea. It also hinders the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins such as beta-carotene (vitamin A) and vitamins D, E, and K. In clinical trials of Xenical, which is twice as strong as Alli, 8 percent of people had trouble controlling their bowels during the first year of use, and up to 27 percent had other symptoms, such as underwear staining and gas. And Xenical includes a warning regarding reported cases of pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas).


What to do: Our medical experts believe the risks and inconveniences of orlistat vastly outweigh its benefits in helping people lose weight. You’re going to be better off using proven (and non-underwear-staining) weight-loss methods such as exercising more often and eating less.


Disappearing fingerprints


Caused by: Long-term use of the cancer drug capecitabine (Xeloda).


What happens: It sounds like a plot device in a mystery novel, but it appears that this cancer drug can indeed eradicate fingerprints, at least temporarily. That’s because one of the adverse effects of the drug is hand-foot syndrome, a condition that causes the hands and feet to swell and sometimes blister and peel. In a letter to the journal Annals of Oncology, researchers at the National Cancer Centre Singapore described how a patient was detained by customs officers at a U.S. airport because they couldn’t detect his fingerprints.


What to do: Call your doctor if you experience any symptoms in your hands or feet. There are ways to manage this side effect.


Black, blue, green, or reddish-brown urine


Caused by: The muscle relaxant methocarbamol (Robaxin and generic), the heartburn drug cimetidine (Tagamet), and the antibiotic metronidazole (Flagyl and generic).


What happens: Your pee changes color—but don’t worry, it’s temporary (if it’s caused by those drugs).


What to do: An abnormal urine color can be the harmless result of a medication you took or even something you ate. But it can also be a sign of a more serious condition. If it doesn’t clear up, or you see blood, call your doctor.


Compulsive shopping


Caused by: Pramipexole (Mirapex) and ropinirole (Requip), used to treat Parkinson’s and restless legs syndrome (RLS), which causes a strong urge to move the legs, especially at night and when sitting or lying down.


What happens: In addition to reducing unwanted movement, those drugs, called dopamine agonists, can affect the part of the brain responsible for impulse control. About 20 percent of people taking one of them for Parkinson’s show compulsive behavior that may involve binge eating, sex, shopping, and gambling, according to a two-year study of 321 patients published by Mayo Clinic researchers. Those patients who took higher doses saw higher rates of the side effect.


What to do: Tell your doctor if you have a history of compulsive behavior, and make sure that family members know about the risk. You might not be able to tell when your behavior becomes a problem.


Editor's Note:

This article and related materials are made possible by a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program, which is funded by the multi-state settlement of consumer-fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin (gabapentin). The aricle was adapted from ShopSmart magazine.



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