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Drug type
Drug usage
Drug abuse
Drug treatment

A side effect or adverse effect of a treatment is an abnormal, harmful, undesired and/or unintended effect, although not necessarily unexpected, which is obtained as a result of a therapy or other medical intervention, such as drug/chemotherapy, physical therapy, surgery, medical procedure, use of a medical device, etc. Iatrogenesis (literally, generated by a physician) is a common cause of adverse effects, as well as medical error. Using a drug or other medical intervention which is contraindicated may increase the risk of side effects. Adverse effects may cause medical complications of a disease or procedure and negatively affect its prognosis.

The harmful outcome is usually indicated by some result such as morbidity, mortality, alteration in body weight, levels of enzymes, loss of function or as a pathological change detected at the microscopic, macroscopic or physiological level. They may cause a reversible or irreversible change, including an increase or decrease in the susceptibility of the individual to other chemicals, foods, or procedures (e.g. drug interaction).

Reporting systems[edit | edit source]

Main article: Adverse drug effect reporting by country

In many countries, adverse effects are required by law to be reported, researched in clinical trials and included into the patient information accompanying medical devices and drugs for sale to the public.

Adverse effects of drugs[edit | edit source]

Main article: adverse drug reaction

Adverse effects can occur as a collateral or side effect of many interventions, but they are particularly important in pharmacology, due to its wider, and sometimes uncontrollable, use by way of self-medication. Thus, responsible drug use becomes an important issue here.

Adverse effects, like intended effects of drugs, are a function of dosage or drug levels at the target organs, so they may be avoided or decreased by means of careful and precise pharmacodynamics (the change of drug levels in the organism in function of time after administration).

Adverse effects may also be caused by drug interaction, i.e., when physicians fail to check for all medicaments a patient is taking and prescribe new ones which interact agonistically or antagonistically (potentiate or decrease the intended therapeutic effect). Significant morbidity and mortality is caused around the world because of this. Drug-drug and food-drug interactions may occur, and even so-called "natural drugs" used in alternative medicine may have dangerous adverse effects. For example, extracts of St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum), a phytotherapic used for treating mild depression are known to cause an increase in the cytochrome P450 enzymes responsible for the metabolism and elimination of many drugs, so that patients taking it are likely to experience a reduction in blood levels of drugs that they are taking for other purposes, such as cancer chemotherapeutic drugs, protease inhibitors for HIV and oral contraceptives.

The scientific field of activity associated with drug safety is increasingly government-regulated and is of major concern for the public as well as to drug manufacturers. The distinction between adverse and non-adverse effects is a major undertaking when a new drug is developed and tested before marketing it. This is done in toxicity studies to determine the non-adverse effect level (NOAEL). These studies are used to define the dosage to be used in human testing (phase I) as well as to calculate the maximum admissible daily intake. Imperfections in clinical trials, such as insufficient number of patients or short duration, sometimes lead to public health disasters such as those of fenfluramine (the so-called fen-phen episode), thalidomide and, more recently, of cerivastatin (Baycol®, Lipobay®) and rofecoxib (Vioxx®), where drastic adverse effects were observed, like teratogenesis, pulmonary hypertension, stroke, heart disease, neuropathy, etc., and a significant number of deaths, causing the forced or voluntary withdrawal of the drug from the market.

Most drugs have a large list of non-severe or mild adverse effects which do not rule out the interruption of usage. These effects have widely variable incidence, according to individual sensitivity. They comprise nausea, dizziness, diarrhea, malaise, vomit, headache, dermatitis, dry mouth, etc.

Examples of adverse effects[edit | edit source]

Most drugs have a large list of non-severe or mild adverse effects which do not rule out the interruption of usage. These effects have widely variable incidence, according to individual sensitivity. They comprise nausea, dizziness, diarrhea, malaise, vomit, headache, dermatitis, , etc.

Other side effects of interest to psychologists are:

Physical side effects with psychological implications[edit | edit source]

Side effects by drug group[edit | edit source]

Main article: Side effects of drugs

Controversies[edit | edit source]

Sometimes, putative medical adverse effects are regarded as controversial and generate heated discussions in society and lawsuits against drug manufacturers. One example is the current controversy whether autism may be caused by the MMR vaccine (or by thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used in some vaccines). No significative link has been found so far, but this has not prevented lawsuits. Due to the exceedingly high impact on public health of widely used medications, such as oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy, which may affect millions of users, even marginal probabilities of adverse effects of a severe nature, such as breast cancer, have led to public outcry and changes in medical therapy, although its benefits largely surpassed the statistical risks.

See also[edit | edit source]

External links[edit | edit source]

  • Patient Safety Network. An extremely useful site, with a glossary and articles on all kinds of threats to patient safety, including adverse effects, drug reactions, medical error, iatrogenesis, etc.
  • - Searchable Database of Adverse Drug Reactions (ADRs)
  • Australian Adverse Drug Reactions Bulletin - published bimonthly by ADRAC
  • Drugs of Concern site for tort lawyers with up-to-date information on drugs that cause severe adverse effects)
  • Medication Errors a FDA site.
  • Medical Product Safety Information. MedWatch, an useful page from FDA, listing safety alerts for drugs, biologics, devices and dietary supplements, recalls, market withdrawals, public health advisories, links to the VAERS and MAUDE databases, etc.)
  • Medical Devices Safety National Library of Medicine (Medline Plus, useful lists of conventional drug and medical device articles and websites)

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