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A recent study found that even inactive ingredients in prescription or over-the-counter medications may have unpleasant or serious side effects.

Published in Science Translational Medicine, a joint research effort from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Brigham and Women’s Hospital determined that virtually all pills and capsules contain inactive ingredients that could cause allergic or other reactions in people who take them.

Are Inactive Ingredients Causing Problems?

The fact that there are inactive ingredients in medications is not new.  The surprising news is how little physicians and others know about the sometimes serious consequences of these forgotten inactive ingredients. It isn’t just the active ingredients that can lead to medication errors.

Lead author Dr. Giovanni Traverso, with the MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering and a gastroenterologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, spoke of an incident five years earlier that put him on the trail of so-called “inactive” ingredients.

Dr. Traverso was treating a patient who suffered from celiac disease.  Celiac disease is a common condition that is believed to occur as result of an allergic or immune response to wheat gluten.  Individuals with celiac disease suffer uncomfortable symptoms due to inflammation in the small intestine caused by gluten allergens.

In this case, the patient was experiencing a worsening of symptoms after being prescribed a common medication that represses production of stomach acid. Dr. Traverso eventually discovered from the pharmaceutical manufacturer that the medication contained wheat-derived ingredients which triggered additional symptoms in the patient.

What Prescribing Physicians Do Not Know

Dr. Traverso and his colleagues took a deep dive into medical journals and studies that described allergic reactions to medications.  Taking that data, they reviewed inactive ingredients in OTC medications and came up with findings that include:

  • Inactive ingredients make up between 50 and 99 percent of OTC and pharmaceutical medications. Yet virtually no information about the side impacts of inactive ingredients is provided to healthcare consumers by treating physicians.
  • About 93 percent of medications contain known allergens like dyes, lactose, glutens, sugars, peanut derivatives and more.
  • Sugars known as FODMAP can cause problems for those with digestive difficulties and are present in about 55 percent of all medications.

To avoid uncomfortable and potentially serious consequences of the inactive ingredients in medicines, physicians must be alert to how all the ingredients in a drug could affect their patient.  But first, physicians have to learn what is in the drugs they are prescribing.  Notes, Dr. Traverso, “Education, increased awareness, and legislation are all important.”

Next time you are provided a medication or pick up a prescription, it might be worth asking your physician or pharmacist about those “inactive” ingredients.

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