An article in the Washington Post this week notes that the Food and Drug Administration has issued 14 drug advisories since November, which amounts to more than it sometimes issues in an entire year. The Post quotes Paul Seligman, the director of the FDAís Office of Drug Safety, as saying that the surge does not indicate that drugs are more dangerous recently, just that the FDA has decided to do a better and more timely job of informing the public of adverse reactions to medications. Think carefully about Seligmanís reassurance. He is saying this: Drugs are not more dangerous than they used to be; drugs have always been dangerous. Now they are just telling us about it sooner.
Quite often drugs are necessary. If you have diabetes that canít be controlled with diet and exercise, you need medication. If that medication is found to increase your risk of other illnesses, such as heart problems or depression, you need to discuss the risk-benefit ratio with your doctor, perhaps find an alternative medication or take steps to reduce the risks of the one you are using. The fact that drugs are dangerous does not mean we shouldnít take them when we need them. It means that we shouldnít take them if we donít need them—and should think very carefully about possible alternatives when we are ill.
The wide variety of available medications (from non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for mild arthritis pain to high-powered antacids for acid reflux and indigestion) has accustomed us to reach for the pill bottle at the slightest hint of discomfort. We rarely think about the risks. If it is on the shelf it must be safe, we tell ourselves. Our doctor wouldnít have given it to us if it werenít safe, we think. That kind of reasoning is naÔve beyond belief. Anyone who has paid more than a little attention to events lately knows that this is simply not true. The FDA seems to be doing a better job of keeping us informed about the risks of the medicines we are offered. It is our job to use these drugs responsibly, only when the benefits of their use outweigh the risk that all drugs entail.
Avery Hurt is a health and science journalist. Her work appears regularly in national publications such as: Better Homes and Gardens, Newsweek, and The New Physician. She is author of Bullet With Your Name On It: What You Will Probably Die From And What You Can Do About It (Clerisy Press, 2007) and Donít Worry, Iím Not Contagious: Your Guide to Staying Healthy in an Infectious World, due out from Clerisy, fall 2008. She is at work on her third book, on alternative medicine.