If you feel overwhelmed by the list of potential side effects on your medication, that's understandable. Drugs, on average, each list a mind-numbing 70 potential drug reactions, researchers say.
Such a lengthy list is more likely the product of cautious manufacturers, who want to protect themselves from lawsuits, rather than the inherent dangers of the drugs themselves, the researchers say. But the large number of side effects may make it hard for doctors to know which medications to select for their patients.
"Having a high number of side effects on a drug's label should not suggest that the drug is unsafe. In fact, much of this labeling has less to do with true toxicity than with protecting manufacturers from potential lawsuits," said study researcher Dr. Jon Duke, assistant professor of medicine at the Indiana University School of Medicine.
"But having all these labeled side effects can overwhelm doctors who must weigh the risks and benefits when prescribing a medication," Duke said. "The Food and Drug Administration has taken steps to discourage such 'overwarning,' but at present, information overload is the rule rather than the exception," Duke said.
Using a computer program, Duke and his colleagues analyzed 5,600 drug labels and more than 500,000 labeled effects.
They found the more commonly prescribed drugs averaged around 100 side effects each, with some drugs containing as many as 525 listed reactions.
The greatest number of side effects was found in antidepressants, antiviral medications and newer treatments for restless legs syndrome and Parkinson's disease. In general, medications typically used by psychiatrists and neurologists had the most complex labels, while drugs used by dermatologists and ophthalmologists had the least.
Modern technology should be used to assist patients in understanding which of the side effects may be most relevant to them, the researchers say.
"With current technology, drug labels could be transformed from lengthy static documents to dynamic resources, capable of delivering personalized patient information. Such labels could take into account the individual patient's medical conditions and highlight those side effects that could be especially dangerous," Duke said.
"We can't stop the growing wave of drug information," Duke said, "but we can do a better job of presenting it efficiently to health-care providers."
The study is published today (May 23) in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine. It was funded by the National Library of Medicine and the Regenstrief Institute, a non-profit healthcare research organization afflicated with the Indiana University School of Medicine.
Pass it on: The average medication lists 70 side effects. Such a long list may overwhelm doctors as they try to decide which medications will benefit their patients the most.