Medicated Nation

There’s a good chance you have memorized the warning listed on the prescription medication label. That’s because you’ve either heard it on television or radio during commercials for prescription medicines, or you have read it on the label on the medicine bottle. The warning reads something like this:

“Take only as directed. Finish all of the medicine in the prescription. Call your doctor or pharmacist if you have any questions or experience any side effects.”

And if you read “Health, United States, 2013," which is the annual report on the nation’s health prepared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, you’ll understand even better why you have that warning memorized. America is a medicated nation.

The report shows Americans spend a lot on prescription drugs — $263 billion in 2011. The amount is almost 10% of what the nation spends on health care. That’s up from 5.6% from 1990.

Drug companies are doing a lot of advertising — almost $4.2 billion in 2005. It used to be that doctors were the folks who recommended new drugs to patients. That’s changed. Now, the pharmaceutical companies themselves are getting the word out.

There’s an entire debate that can be had over whether all of that medicine is good or bad, or whether we are over-medicating ourselves. But one of the key things to remember is that while most of the time medicines work the way they are supposed to, that’s not always the case. There are risks and side effects associated with every medicine. A side effect, by the way, is an unintended occurrence that results from taking a drug.  

The most common side effects are usually drowsiness, nausea, vomiting, rash, or insomnia. None of those are pleasant, and they were discovered during FDA drug trials during the development of the drug. However the side effects were deemed acceptable risks because of the need for the medicine. But drug trials, while carefully planned and monitored, usually involve a relatively small number of people. In some cases, there are side effects that are much more serious. But those aren’t well known until the drug is much more widely used.

The key point to remember is, while you may have that drug warning memorized, it is important to pay attention to it.

- Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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