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Dangerous Adverse Drug Reactions

  • Date: 2009/03/22 (Rev. 2017/05/02)
  • Dr Jenny Tylee
  • Synopsis : If you take or intend to take medically prescribed drugs you need to be aware of the potential for medication reactions in the body.

Main Document

Medical drugs are far from safe and there are often adverse reactions in the body associated with taking drugs.

Adverse drug reactions are reactions that are unintended or undesired. If you take or intend to take medically prescribed drugs you need to be aware of the potential for these reactions in the body.

Many people believe that taking medical drugs is the only option open to them. However, in many situations, this is not the case and there are a wide range of effective alternatives that do not have the adverse reactions on many medical drugs.

There are five main groups into which these adverse reactions can be placed. Those that:

  • Adversely affect the blood cells,
  • Cause toxicity in the liver,
  • Damage the kidneys,
  • Affect the skin, and
  • Affect the unborn baby.

In addition to these groupings there are individual reactions such as:

  • Allergic reactions,
  • Hypersensitivity,
  • Tolerance,
  • Dependence,
  • Drug interactions,
  • Destruction of vitamins and minerals,
  • Drug accumulation and so forth.

There are a number of factors that will influence the possibility of adverse drug reactions. These include:

  • The number of drugs that a person is taking. The greater the number being taken the greater the likelihood that there will be an interaction between these drugs. The effects of these interactions are impossible to accurately determine - especially when the number of drugs taken exceeds two or three.
  • Women, theoretically only require 3/4 of the male adult dose. This is related to the weight and metabolic differences between men and women. Often this difference is not taken into account when women are prescribed drugs and when they take over-the-counter medications. This means that there could be an increased risk of adverse reactions for women.
  • The age of the person taking the drugs is also influential. Babies, children and the elderly all require modifications to the full adult dose. This is due to their reduced ability to metabolize and detoxify the drugs. Dosages in these cases are related to their weight and age. Digitalis (digoxin) is a very toxic drug used in heart disease - its dosages are related to the person's body weight.

The disease state itself can contribute to drug side effects. For example:

  • Taking digitalis when a person has kidney problems can lead to the accumulation of the drug (because the kidneys are unable to get rid of it from the body) and this can lead to digitalis toxicity - a very serious situation.
  • A low level of potassium in the presence of digitalis increases the sensitivity of the heart muscle to digitalis toxicity - again a very serious situation.
  • The presence of liver diseases such as hepatitis (an inflammation of the liver) or cirrhosis (a chronic degenerative disease of the liver) can lead to the accumulation of the drugs that are normally detoxified by the liver.
  • A person who has allergic reactions to other drugs, food, pollens, dust, or other substance may be more likely to have adverse reactions to drugs.
  • People undergoing treatment for cancer will generally have toxic effects from that treatment - depending on the dose and the nature of the drugs used.
  • Some people have individual reactions to particular drugs - because of the uniqueness of their genetic make up.
  • The use of cigarettes, alcohol and tranquillizers plus other drugs increases the possibility of an adverse reaction to the drugs - because of the combined effects that these drugs have on the chemistry in the body.

Symptoms associated with adverse drug reactions can be divided into three groups:

  • Life threatening (as in an major allergic reaction - which unless dealt with immediately could be fatal),
  • Severe or irritating
  • Uncomfortable

The symptoms generally subside when the drug which caused the reaction is withdrawn. An allergic response (or hypersensitivity) to a drug forms the majority of side effects or adverse drug reactions.

These allergic responses generally follow a particular pattern:

  • There is an initial exposure to the drug - this establishes the allergic reaction and a state in which the person is now allergic to that drug.
  • Once the allergic state has been established an allergic reaction can be started by even very small amounts of the drug that is responsible for the reaction. The allergic reaction will occur each time the drug is taken.

The reaction can lead to the following:

  • Skin rashes that can be itchy, flaky, purple spots or red and raised,
  • Nausea and vomiting and other gut reactions such as diarrhea,
  • Tightness and swelling in the lungs and throat which can cause difficulty in breathing.

These allergic reactions are often seen with the use of antibiotics in particular penicillins. However, they can occur with the use of any drugs.

Many drugs that are in common use have the side effects of:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Rashe
  • Itching

This list of side effects is however far from extensive as many adverse reactions are possible. Some other common side effects are:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Constipation
  • Feeling faint
  • General fatigue and weakness
  • Hand tremors
  • Sweating
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Weight gain
  • Acne
  • Dry mouth
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Abdominal pain
  • Development of ulcers
  • Ringing in the ear

There are many possible adverse reactions to medical drugs.

If you are taking medical drugs or are intending to take them you need to be aware of these possible reactions as well as the toxic effects of the medication. The list of possible side effects is very lengthy and extends for the annoying to the life threatening.

Many people believe that taking medical drugs is the only option open to them - this however, in many situations, is not the case.

There are often effective alternatives to the use of pharmaceutical medication. However, if you are currently taking pharmaceutical medication it is not wise to cease that medication without the supervision of a health professional.


Goyen, M. 2000, Guide to Medications: Including Prescription and Non-prescription Drugs. Watermark Press.

Iversen, L. 2001, Drugs. Oxford Press.

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