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When Medicine Makes You Sick

The prescription drug you've been on for years can have sudden, scary side effects.

pills and water

— Mark Lund Homeroom

To avoid drug toxicity, patients should be proactive by keeping a careful record of which drugs they’re taking — including over-the-counter medications — and bringing that list to every doctor visit.

They can also insist that their doctors consider drug toxicity when a new symptom arises. "Many doctors don’t specifically test for drug toxicity," explains Raji, "and a simple CBC [or blood chemistry panel] won’t detect it." Certain blood tests can monitor the levels and effects of several drugs, including levothyroxine (Synthroid), warfarin (Coumadin), some antibiotics, and digoxin (Lanoxin). But even so, says Raji, "the blood range of digoxin that's listed as ‘normal’ in medical textbooks is based on tests done on young people." In general, say medical experts, the best way to determine if drug toxicity has occurred is to eliminate or reduce the dose of a suspected medication when safe to do so — as Lisa Herbert’s doctor did.

Patients should also read the safety inserts that come with their medication — before taking it. After recovering from what she calls her "cognitive flip-out," Herbert finally read her baclofen insert, discovering in the fine print the drug’s rare but possible adverse effects: seizures, confusion, even hallucinations. Had she read the insert earlier, she realized, she might have saved herself and her roommate a good deal of anguish — not to mention a day’s work in cleaning up one very messy apartment.

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