You’re in your favorite recliner watching the game, and then comes a “word from our sponsors.” You may not bet on the game, but you can bet there’ll be a commercial for a pharmaceutical drug during that break. For today’s purposes, I’ll refer to a fantasy medication named ‘Druguall.’ The Druguall commercial shows a couple at the beach, walking hand in hand along the shore as the announcer explains the indications for Druguall, ending with the requisite side effect statement “…Druguall may be habit forming, and has been shown to cause an inability to make a left turn, an impulse to chew toenails, and a compulsion to repeatedly beat your head against a wall. If symptoms worsen or become problematic, contact your physician immediately. If you are allergic to Druguall, do not take Druguall.” Duh! That last one always kills me. Does the American public need to be told to not take a drug they’re allergic to? Apparently so, because pharma companies have been held liable for idiots taking their drug (despite being allergic to it) in numbers sufficient enough to spend the extra commercial time and money to make the statement to cover their corporate posteriors. But enough of the woes of big pharma. What am I writing about today? Side effects! Every drug’s got ‘em, and they range from comical to serious…even downright deadly. The point of this is so that you’ll ask your doctor when he or she starts you on a new med, especially if you’re already taking other meds…you need to know if they’ll play nice together.
Here’s the ugly truth that your doctor probably doesn’t want you to know. When it comes to taking most drugs, it’s a crap shoot. He or she can know the side effects, but there’s no way to predict if you’ll experience any of those side effects, what they may be, and if they will have a minor/major affect on your life. When it comes to prescribing, there’s a lot of ‘throw this out there and see if it sticks’ going on. Granted, good physicians know the published side effects of the drugs they prescribe. I certainly do. But even though I know these drugs inside and out, there’s still some trial and error, because everyone reacts to different medications differently. If you’ve ever seen the PDR, the Physician’s Desk Reference, it is chockablock full of side effects. And it’s big enough to be used as a weapon. Nowadays it’s really just for show…everyone just checks the internet. Anyway, when a drug is tried in humans, everything that happens is noted. If the test subject happens to fart ten minutes after taking a trial medication, that medication is labeled with a side effect of flatulence, even though the guy probably just had broccoli for dinner. So if you look at any given drug, there are multitudes of side effects. Today, I want to talk about some of the weirder and wilder ones.
Lots of medications get a bad rap for having yucky and unpleasant side effects, and most have earned them. Almost every drug on the market has side effects of upset stomach, dizziness, and headache. Borrrring!!! Instead, I want to look at some not-so-common side effects. The big note here is that just because a certain medication can cause a certain side effect doesn’t mean it will cause that side effect.
Hallucinations happen when you sense something that’s not actually there. I’m talking little green men here, people. But hallucinations can be seen, felt, heard, and even smelled. They are some freaky and frightening side effects. Most people associate them with illegal psychadelic drugs like shrooms and acid, but prescription drugs can also cause hallucinations. The sleep aid eszopiclone and a common medication for depression called escitalopram have been known to cause hallucinations. Even a drug to treat malaria called mefloquine can cause hallucinations. I’ve seen more cases of people hallucinating than I could ever count and ordered lots of four-point restraints. I’ve seen super heroes with broken bones they received learning that they actually couldn’t fly from multi-story buildings. I’ve seen lots of people who say they’re God, and lots who say they’re Satan, but no proof from any of them.
Now we’ll go from freaky to funny. There are plenty of meds that will turn your urine different colors. Even some non-drug food items can do it…beets can turn it pink, asparagus can turn it green (and stinky!) and carrots can turn it bright yellow. As for meds that change pee color, every woman probably knows that pyridium for UTIs makes it bright Tang orange. Even OTC Azo will do that too. But can you imagine seeing your urine turn green or bright blue? This can be a side effect of taking the antidepressant amitriptyline or the common pain reliever indomethacin. An antibiotic called metronidazole can even cause your urine to turn black. That would freak me out. The anesthetic drug propofol can also make your urine turn blue. Michael Jackson could’ve told you about that one. Well, if he weren’t dead from abusing it.
Big word alert for the Scrabble set: anosmia; the loss of smell. This side effect actually has a huge impact on a patient’s life, because the loss of smell goes along with the loss of taste, so patients have no desire to eat, and that becomes a problem. Sometimes patients even have to be put on IV feeds. Some examples of drugs that can cause this side effect include the blood pressure drug enalapril, the antipsychotic drugs chlorpromazine and prochlorperazine, and the antibiotic metronidazole. And just a side note, prolonged use of OTC decongestants like Sudafed can also cause loss of smell.
Sexual side effects are always of interest to patients. The most common sexual side effect is the loss of the ability to either perform during sex or the ability to enjoy sex. The usual culprits of these types of sexual side effects are certain drugs that treat depression. These medications are called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), and they include common drugs like Prozac (fluoxetine), Celexa (citalopram), and Zoloft (sertraline). I always consider this side effect when choosing what to prescribe. I find that men aren’t willing to trade mental health for sexual satisfaction, but interestingly, women are more willing to do so.
On the flip side of the sexual side effect coin is priaprism, which is a painful, permanent erection. A variety of medications can lead to this condition, one which patients who’ve experienced it will never forget. This unfortunate side effect lasts for more than four to six hours and may be caused by antidepressants like trazodone, fluoxetine, sertraline and lithium. An anti-anxiety medication called vistaril and the blood thinner coumadin are also known offenders. Priapism due to a medication side effect (as opposed to from taking a little blue pill) often goes away without treatment, though putting ice packs on the affected area might help speed up recovery. Cringing.
This one sort of goes along with the above discussion. There are several medications that cause the side effects of unusual urges for sex and gambling, though hopefully not at the same time. Common culprits include Requip, which is a medication for restless legs, and the antidepressant Abilify. These meds may cause uncontrollable urges to gamble, binge eat, shop, and have sex. Interestingly, a Parkinson’s medication called carbidopa/levodopa also carries a warning of intense urges for gambling and sex. I’ve had cases where men don’t want to leave their homes because they want to masturbate, as well as cases where they’re caught masterbating in public. As for the gambling…I’ve had patients lose a lot of money gambling in casinos, betting on horses, and even at the dog track. The sexual and/or gambling compulsions just drive them.
It’s common knowledge that drugs affect dreams, but not always in a good way. Medications that affect neurotransmitters in the brain commonly cause bad dreams and nightmares. The Alzheimer’s medications donepezil and rivastigmine, as well as the Parkinson’s medication amantadine, are all reported to cause vivid dreams, often being of a sexual nature. Nightmares are also a commonly reported adverse effect of blood pressure medications called beta-blockers. These include propranolol, atenolol and labetalol. There are also reports of steroids like methylprednisolone and prednisone causing nightmares. Varenicline, the medication often prescribed to help people stop smoking, is known to cause dreams that are super strange and very vivid. Not only does varenecline cause bad vivd dreams, I’ve seen patienta think it’s okay to stab themselves repeatedly or to kill themselves. Varenicline is a scary strange drug. Even stranger? The prescription sleep aid zolpidem doesn’t keep many users sleeping in bed. In fact, many who take it have been known to get up at night and go for a drive, maybe talk on the phone, or even have sex…all without remembering anything in the morning. You can ask Elon Musk about zolpidem. He tweeted that he was going for an IPO for $423 a share after taking it. His advisors had a fit the next morning, but he found it amusing and shrugged it off. But Roseanne Barr wasn’t laughing when she lost her eponymous show after a discriminating tweet. She apologized, but the damage was done. Maybe she should’ve called Elon for help.
Another big word for the Scrabble set: Akathisia. The word comes from the Greek for “inability to sit,” so this side effect invokes feelings of unease and an inner restlessness. Unfortunately, this is another adverse reaction that folks who experience it never forget. They describe it as wanting to crawl out of their skin. The triggers for this horrible sensation are the anti-nausea medications prochlorperazine and metoclopramide, as well as some SSRI antidepressants, and an anti-anxiety medication called buspirone. Thankfully, this terrible feeling goes away when the medication wears off.
What if taking a medication made you pack on the pounds? How about if it caused you to gain 20 plus pounds in only three months? Some people who take the medication olanzapine for bipolar disorder have done just that. Some common medications used to treat depression, like paroxetine, can also cause unintended weight gain. Weight gain is enough to cause depression in and of itself, so I’m always cognizant of that when I prescribe. Other drugs that can pack on the pounds include steroids, birth control pills, hormone replacement therapies, and some diabetes medications. The bottom line on that is that if you must take one of these drugs, you also must watch what you eat.
File this under the creepy side effect column. And yet another big word for the Scrabble set: Onycholysis. This is the medical term to describe when nails separate from the nail bed. You may not think that’s so bad, but trust and believe that patients who experience it do, and you would too if you had it. It can be super painful and may result in infections under the nails. Believe it or not, there are quite a few meds that can cause this: acne treatments tetracycline and fluoroquinolone, antibiotics like ciprofloxacin and levofloxacin, oral contraceptives, and some chemotherapy medications…all may cause your nails to separate from the nail beds.
Visual disturbances can also be a side effect of certain meds. These disturbances can include blind spots, distorted vision, blurred vision, or halos around lights. Medications that can affect your vision include antihistamines, high blood pressure medications, and medications taken for malaria or tuberculosis. For men on the little blue pill, a truly weird and whacky side effect can be tinting of the vision, as through tinted glasses. And of course it tints the vision blue. I wonder if that might be a promotional idea…to see blue like their little pill.
Most people are familiar with the hair loss that goes along with some types of cancer treatments, but there are also several other common medications that cause hair loss, including blood thinners, birth control pills, antidepressants, and medication used to treat gout. But hair growth can also be a drug side effect. Women may experience unwanted hair growth from steroid medications and from the drug danazol, which is used to treat endometriosis.
Have you ever torn a tendon? It isn’t always just from a sports injury. Believe it or not, a common medication used to treat urinary tract infections could cause you to rupture your Achilles tendon. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a warning for just that for the class of antibiotics called fluoroquinolones. According to the FDA, pain, swelling, and tears of tendons in the heel, shoulder, and hand are more likely to occur when taking these drugs. Common medications in this class include the often prescribed antibiotics ciprofloxacin and levofloxacin. So maybe it’s best to warm the bench when you’re taking these antibiotics.
All jokes aside on this one. No list of side effects would be complete without mentioning side effects causing birth defects. Obviously, birth defects are a very serious medication side effect, and this is why pregnant women are told not to take any drugs before checking with their doctor first. Types of drugs that can cause birth defects include high dose vitamin A, some blood pressure medications, and some antibiotics. Two drugs that are especially dangerous and potentially fatal for developing babies are Accutane (isotretinoin) and Thalomid (thalidomide). Accutane is used to treat severe acne and Thalomid is used to treat a type of white blood cell cancer. When pregnant, all side effects are serious. But pregnant or not, isotretinoin is a nasty, scary, dangerous drug. It’s used most commonly by dermatologists for severe acne. I’ve heard of patients flying planes into buildings, thinking they’re invincible and jumping from buildings, and just acting in an exceedingly dangerous way. It’s like they’re without fear.
Rather than a condition, this one is about a drug called Interferon. Interferon is used to treat certain cancers, leukemias, and Hodgkin’s Disease. I’ve seen some pretty bizarre things with Interferon. People become suicidal, openly so. They’ll talk about suicide like it’s an acceptable option. Sometimes they cut themselves and make themselves bleed. It’s very odd and very scary. Interferon can also cause bizarre thoughts, and people become psychotic. Also, they can have anosmia. Remember that? That’s the loss of smell that I discussed above. Interferon can be useful in cancer treatments, but people have to be closely monitored for side effects.
I’ve saved the weirdest of the weird, the most bizarre side effect I’ve ever seen, for last. At the time, I was in medical school but working in the ER. What I saw looked straight out of The Exorcist. The side effect is called an extra-pyramidal oculogyric crisis. Oculo- refers to eyes, which fix upward and to the side during the crisis. In severe attacks, there can also be involvement of the head and neck and structures within the neck. There are several drugs that cause it, and the crises or attacks can happen in varying degrees, from minor reactions to major emergencies requiring intubation for airway control. Oculogyric reactions are caused by neuroleptic drugs, antipsychotics, antiemetics (anti-nausea drugs), and antidepressants. Cases involving other drugs have been reported, including methylphenidate and carbamazepine. In this case, the patient’s head was turned sideways and backward at an impossible angle, with her eyes fixed very strongly to the opposite side. Her face was frozen in a grimace and her neck was so flexed that she was unable to speak and her airway was compromised. She needed to be intubated for airway support, but doctors were unable to straighten her neck to insert the tube. They were considering a tracheostomy, making a hole in her throat, to buy some time because they didn’t know what was happening. Because she was unable to speak, she couldn’t tell the ER doctor that she had taken an antiemetic, a medication for nausea, which had caused the episode. The doctors were puzzled as to what was happening because of how extreme the episode was, and several were gathered around her bed in the ER. A nurse just happened to stick her head in the room to see what the commotion was, and she mentioned in passing that she had seen something similar in someone who had taken compazine. At that word, compazine, the patient snapped her fingers and pointed at the nurse; the doctors asked if she had taken compazine and she snapped her fingers again and the mystery was solved. They gave her IV Benadryl and five minutes later her neck and eyes relaxed to midline and in another five minutes, she was able to speak. I’ve seen oculogyric crises since, but none like that. The whole Exorcist thing is the craziest side effect I’ve ever seen, but I will forever remember extra-pyramidal oculogyric crises.
After working in psychiatry for the past 30 years, I’ve seen time and time again that when you put a drug in the human body, you don’t know what you’re going to get. It’s like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, but not as tasty. For more patient stories, be sure to read my book Tales from the Couch, available on Amazon.com.Learn More