As I write this, the American news cycle is firmly focused on the issue of drug harms. It’s in the headlines not because of the thousands of cases of drug toxicity, hospitalizations, and even deaths that are documented each year, but because of the untimely death of singer Whitney Houston. While the cause of Houston’s death has not yet been identified,prescription drugs and alcohol are suspected to have played a role. If that’s the case, she’ll join a long list of celebrities whose deaths have been attributed to the abuse of prescription drugs. Over at Natural News, Mike Adams has already added her name to the list of “celebrities killed by Big Pharma“. He elaborated on drug-related deaths back in 2009 when actor Brittany Murphy died, deeming her death to be due to “Acute Pharmaceutical Toxicity“: (more…)
I spend a lot of time as a pharmacist discussing side effects and allergies to drugs. For your own safety, I won’t recommend or dispense a drug until I know your allergy status. I don’t limit the history to drugs—I want to know anything you’re allergic to, be it environmental, food, insects, or anything else. Allergies can create true therapeutic challenges: We can’t dismiss any allergy claim, but as I’ve blogged before, there’s a big gap between what many perceive as an allergy and what is clinically considered a true allergy. My concern is not only avoiding the harm of an allergic reaction, but also avoiding the potential consequences from selecting a suboptimal therapy that may in fact be appropriate. You may need a specific drug someday, so I encourage patients to discuss vague drug allergies with their physician, and request allergist testing as required.
Food allergies can be as real as drug allergies, and are arguably much harder to prevent. We can usually control when we get penicillin. But what about peanuts, eggs, or milk, all of which can also cause life-threatening anaphylaxis? Food allergies seems to be growing: not only anaphylaxis, but more people believe they have some sort of allergy to food. Allergy is sometimes confused with the term “intolerance”, which seems more common, possibly as the availability of “food intolerance testing” grows. Food intolerance testing and screening is particularly popular among alternative practitioners. Testing can take different forms, but generally the consumer is screened against hundreds of food products and food additives. They are then provided with a list of foods they are “intolerant” to. I’ve spoken with consumers who are struggling to overhaul their diet, having been advised that they are actually intolerant to many of their favourite foods. These reports are taken seriously by patients who believe that they’ll feel better if they eliminate these products. In the pharmacy, I’ve been asked to verify the absence of trace amounts of different fillers in medications because of a perceived intolerance. Children may be tested, too, and parents may be given a long list of foods they are told their child is intolerant of. I’ve seen the effects in the community, too. Think going “peanut free” is tough? A public school in my area sent home a list of forbidden food products: dairy, eggs, bananas, tree nuts, peanuts, soy, sesame, flax seed, kiwi, chicken, and bacon. Were these all true allergies? It’s not disclosed. Anaphylactic or not, the parents had informed the school, and the school had banned the food product.
But can a simple blood test actually identify and eliminate food intolerance? That’s the question I wanted to answer.
I’m traveling this week, checking out pharmacy practice internationally, and looking for signs of science-based medicine. Instead of a post, here are the links to two podcasts I recently recorded that will be of interest to SBM readers. Sit back, press play, and enjoy.
Point of Inquiry: Dispensing Skepticism
I recently spoke with Karen Stollznow for the Point of Inquiry podcast. This discussion focused on the role of the pharmacist and the need for science-based pharmacy practice. We touched on a lot of issues including the changing role of the pharmacist, the ethical responsibilities of pharmacists when it comes to products like homeopathy, what compounding pharmacies do, what generic drugs are, what an expiry date means, what pharmacists think about vitamins and other supplements, and more. You can listen to the podcast here.
Skeptically Speaking: The Common Cold
I was recently the guest of Desiree Schell on Skeptically Speaking, where we spent an hour discussing the prevention and treatment of the common cold. You can listen to the podcast, and I’ve compiled a long list of related links and references on cold treatment for your reading pleasure too.
With healthcare costs continuing to rise, generic drugs are looking more attractive than ever. The prospect of getting the same drug at a lower cost is tempting to anyone with a large drug bill — patient or insurer alike. The savings are massive: Lipitor lost patent protection last month — it was a $10 billion drug, and the generic versions are priced at a fraction of the original cost. In 2012, Plavix and Seroquel, two other blockbusters, will lose patent protection too — that’s another $10 billion in drug costs that will shrink. This “patent cliff” will shrivel about $255 billion in worldwide patented drug sales over the next five years. If you’re taking a prescription drug and not already on a generic, you probably will be soon. And depending on where you live, you may be automatically switched to a generic version of your prescription drug as soon as it’s available.
Pharmacists are responsible for most of the switches from brand to generic drugs. In Ontario, where I work, regulations specify which drugs and brands may be automatically substituted — that is, without patient or prescriber consent. This doesn’t mean a lack of transparency, however, so I spend a lot of time speaking with patients about generic drugs. Misconceptions are common, ranging from manufacturing standards (“they’re weaker!”) to efficacy (“the drugs don’t work!”). I’ve seen a number of questions and comments about generic drugs in the comments section here at SBM as well. So today’s post is an overview of the science of evaluating generic drugs. Specifically, I want to review the concept of bioequivalence, the confirmation of which assures us of the interchangeability of different drugs — that is, one can be substituted for another. (more…)
As glands go, we don’t give the butterfly-shaped thyroid that straddles our trachea too much thought — until it stops working properly. The thyroid is a bit like your home’s thermostat: turn it high, and you’re hyperthyroid: heat intolerant, a high heart rate, and maybe some diarrhea. Turn it down, and you’re hypothyroid: cold, tired, constipated, and possibly even depressed. Both conditions are associated with a long list of more serious health consequences. Between the two however, hypothyroidism is far more prevalent. The mainstay drug that treats it, levothyroxine (Synthroid), is one of the most prescribed in the world.
One of my more memorable pharmacy experiences involved levothyroxine. The store had recently changed its prescription labelling standards: It switched from listing the brand name, to only including the generic name (with the manufacturer in parentheses). Few patients noticed. But one elderly patient, taking Synthroid, was furious, and accused me of making a dispensing error. I assured her that levothyroxine was the active ingredient in Synthroid, and she was getting the exact same product as her last visit — but she would have none of it. Her symptoms had worsened, she said, because the medication wasn’t the same. “I want Synthroid — this levothyroxine stuff does not work,” she screamed at me across the counter. No amount of reassurance would satisfy her — I think we eventually resorted to custom, typewritten labels.
I mention this anecdote not to dismiss the symptoms of hypothyroidism as sensitive to placebo effects — hypothyroidism is a real condition with objective monitoring criteria. But this episode was one of my earliest lessons in understanding how perceptions can shape expectations of effectiveness — something that I’ll come back to, when we look at the controversies of this common condition. Any the treatment of hypothyroidism is not without its controversies – most of which occur outside the realm of medicine, and can more accurately be labelled pseudoscience. (more…)
Having spent many hours working in close proximity to a wall of vitamins, I’ve answered a lot of vitamin questions, and given a lot of recommendations. Before I can make a recommendation, I need to ask some questions of my own. My first is almost always, “Why do you want to take a vitamin?” The most common response I’m given is “insurance” – which usually means supplementation in the absence of any symptom or medical need. Running a close second is “I need more energy.” With some digging, the situation usually boils down to a perceived lack of energy compared to some prior period: last week, last year, or a decade ago. While I may identify possible medical issues as a result of these interviews (these are referred to a physician), I’m often faced with a patient with mild and non-specific descriptions of fatigue. And more often than not, they’ve already decided that they’re going to buy a multivitamin supplement. When it comes to boosting the energy levels, they’re often interested in a specific one: Vitamin B12 (cobalamin). So why does vitamin B12, among all the vitamins, have a halo of benefit for fatigue and energy levels? The answer is part science and a whole lot of marketing. (more…)
Multivitamin supplementation has been getting a rough ride in the literature, as evidence emerges that routine supplementation for most is, at best, unnecessary. Some individual vitamins are earning their own unattractive risk/benefit profiles: Products like folic acid, calcium, and beta-carotene all seem inadvisable for routine supplementation in the absence of deficiency or medical indication. Vitamin E, already on the watch list, looks increasingly problematic, with data recently published confirming the suspected association of supplementation with an elevated risk of prostate cancer.
Reading through the vitamin posts here at SBM, one issue comes through repeatedly: The danger of assuming therapeutic benefits in the absence of confirmatory evidence. Vitamin supplement have the patina of safety and of health, a feature that’s reinforced when you purchase them: You don’t need a prescription, you don’t get counseled on their use, and there isn’t a long list of frightening potential side effects to accompany the product. You can pull a bottle off the shelf, and take any dose you want. After all, how harmful can vitamins be when you can buy 5 pounds of vitamin C at a time, or vitamin E capsules in a 1000-pack? But the research signals seem to be getting stronger, and most are pointing in the same direction: what we though we knew about antioxidants was based on simplistic hypotheses about nutrition and health. And while we thought we were doing ourselves good with antioxidant supplements, we may have been doing harm. (more…)
I’m one of those odd people that enjoys distance running. I end up spending a lot of time in the company of other runners. And when we’re not running, we’re usually griping about our running injuries. As the cohort that I run with ages, the injuries are getting more prevalent. Besides the acute conditions, the chronic problems are starting to appear. Our osteoarthritis years are here.
As the available pharmacist, I get a lot of questions about joint pain. What’s reassuring, I tell them, is that they shouldn’t blame running. Osteoarthritis is common — the most frequent cause of joint pain. For some, it starts in our twenties, and by our seventies, osteoarthritis is virtually certain. Regardless of your level of exercise, the passage of time means the classic osteoarthritis symptoms — joint pain and morning stiffness, that worsens over time.
Osteoarthritis progresses gradually. Blame biomechanics and biochemistry. It starts with a breakdown of the cartilage matrix. Stage 2 progresses to erosion of the cartilage and a release of collagen fragments. Stage 3 is a chronic inflammatory response. The goals of treatment are to reduce inflammation and pain, and stop progressive disease. There’s no drug therapy that’s been show to actually improve joint function. Reduce pain, or slow inflammation, yes. Analgesics, like Tylenol, and anti-inflammatories are mainstays. But repair damage? Sorry: you lose it, it’s gone. Chondrocytes don’t seem to be able to repair the overall matrix — which is made mainly of collagen. (more…)
When it comes to health issues, bowels are big business. Bowel movements are part of everyday life, and we notice immediately when our routine changes. Constipation, from the Latin word constipare (“to crowd together”) is something almost everyone has some experience with. In most cases, it’s an occasional annoyance that resolves quickly. For others, particularly the elderly, constipation can be a chronic condition, significantly affecting quality of life. Depending on the question and the sample surveyed, prevalence seems to vary widely. It’s estimate that there are 2.5 million physician visits per year in the USA, and the costs of management are estimated at about $7.5 billion annually. It’s not a trivial issue.
One of the biggest challenges in interpreting both individual patient situations, as well as the literature overall, is understanding what’s defined as “constipation”. One person’s regular routine may be another person’s constipation. From my dialogue with patients, personal definitions seem to vary. Some panic after a single missed bowel movement, while others may be unconcerned with daily (or even less frequent) movements. What’s the optimal frequency? It depends. Infants may be 3x/day. Older children may be once daily. Adults may be daily or less frequently. The literature generally, though not consistently, defines constipation as a delay or difficulty in bowel movements ( usually less than 3 per week) lasting two weeks. Symptoms can include infrequent, painful bowel movements, straining, and lumpy or hard stools. When these problems last for more than three months, it’s termed chronic constipation. When constipation is accompanied by other symptoms like bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, it may be termed irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
There are multiple causes of constipation. It may be a consequence of other illnesses (e.g., high/low thyroid, diabetes, cancer, and neurological diseases like multiple sclerosis). Drugs, both prescription and over-they-counter, can also cause constipation. Primary or idiopathic constipation is a diagnosis of exclusion, after other causes have been ruled out. If there are no signs of a more serious underlying condition, treatments can be considered.
Many have firmly-held opinions about their colon and their bowel movements: what’s normal, and what’s not. And there are equally strong opinions about the causes of, and solutions to, constipation. But despite the ubiquity of constipation and the firmly-held opinions on treatments, there’s a sizable chasm between practice and evidence. This is an area with crappy (sorry) data, and it’s hard to sort out what are true treatment effects. But an absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, so we’re challenged to make the best decisions possible, despite a disappointing evidence base. Here are some common statements I’ve encountered, and an evidence check on their veracity. (more…)
If you read enough supplement advertisements, like I do, you’ll often see the purity of a product often cited as one of its merits. It’s usually some phrase like:
Contains no binders! No fillers! No colours! No excipients! No starch! No gluten! No coatings! No flow agents!
It’s a point of pride for supplement manufacturers to advertise that their product contains nothing but the labelled ingredient. And that’s also seen as an important benefit to many that purchase supplements. The perception from many consumers (based on my personal experience) seems to be that products are inferior if they contain non-drug ingredients. By this measure, drug products are problematic. Pharmaceuticals all contain an array of binders, coatings, supplements and fillers. Even (gasp) artificial ingredients and sweeteners! And they’re often, though not always, disclosed on the package label.
But rather than being a negative feature, these supplementary, non-medicinal ingredients play a critical role in ensuring that drug products are of consistent and reproducible quality. Without them, we’d have products that are potentially unstable, we’d be unclear if they were actually being absorbed, and we wouldn’t know if they actually delivered any active ingredients into the body. In short, we’d be in the same situation we’re currently in with many herbal remedies and other types of supplements.