The medications may contain the ingredients that will cure the symptoms. What you don’t know is what else is in that pill. Some of the most common inactive ingredients in prescription drugs can cause side effects that you hadn’t even thought about.
What Are Inactive Ingredients?
The term “inactive ingredient” refers to the parts of the non-medicated part of the drug. These ingredients don’t decrease or increase the benefits of your medication. These can include dyes to color the drugs, flavorings to increase the palpability, binders to help pills hold their shape, preservatives to extend the shelf life or additives that help the drug move through the human body. In short, they help the active ingredients—the medication that is therapeutic—in achieving the desired results. All commercially-produced medications contain inactive ingredients.
While inactive ingredients are necessary in the production of your medication, they can cause side effects. From mild irritation to major allergic reactions, look out for the inactive ingredients that are most likely to cause adverse side effects.
Aspartame is a commonly-used sugar replacement marketed under the names NutraSweet or Equal. This carb-free sweetener can improve the taste of medications and offset bitter tastes; this is why it’s used frequently in medications.
However, it’s a danger to patients who suffer from phenylketonuria (PKU). This can trigger an extremely dangerous—even deadly reaction in these patients. In addition, and more frequently reported, aspartame can trigger headaches ranging from mild to extremely painful in those patients who are predisposed to headache pain. In particular, they can trigger severe migraines.
If you suffer from migraines or PKU, check medication labels. You are likely to find this ingredient in most “chewable” prescription medicines.
Benzoates are used as an antimicrobial preservative which is added to help extend the shelf life of medications. Benzoates include benzoic acid, benzyl alcohol, potassium benzoate, and sodium benzoate. While benzoates are FDA approved, they can have serious consequences when used improperly. When combined with Vitamin C and exposed to high temperatures or prolonged exposure to light, a chemical called benzene can form. This is a known carcinogen and can cause cancer.
Benzyl alcohol is a liquid that’s widely used as a preservative in injectable medications and vaccinations. In addition, it’s found in inhalant medications commonly prescribed to asthma sufferers. It’s a preservative in these medications. Common side effects are painful itch and rashes at the injection site when injected. When inhaled, it can trigger seizures and rapid drops in patient blood pressure.
The same lactose that you associate with dairy products is used in pharmaceutical products as a binder to hold pills. This is because, in it’s powdered form, the molecules can be highly-compressed, making it ideal for forming tablets. Lactose intolerance is not an “allergy” specifically, Instead, these patients don’t produce the enzymes necessary to digest lactose. The side effects are bouts of gas and bowel pain. While medications don’t generally contain enough lactose to trigger a bout of lactose intolerance, it largely depends on the reaction of the individual patient. If you are lactose intolerant, be aware when taking these medications. On the other hand, there are infrequent cases of people who are truly allergic to lactose. These people should avoid lactose entirely.
Propylene Glycol is an inactive ingredient that helps to make drugs more soluble so that the medication is efficiently delivered to the within the body. While propylene glycol is a safe ingredient for most, it can have a negative impact. Most frequently, those who have reactions to propylene glycol are children. In topical or injectable medications, children can experience rashes or blisters from this ingredient. When taken orally, there are rare occasions when children can develop respiratory issues or seizures.
How Do You Find Out About Inactive Ingredients?
If reading this has you concerned, you might be wondering about how to find out what inactive ingredients are in your medications. The solution to this is actually easier than you might think. Read the information. It’s sometimes hard to locate, but it’s literally at your fingertips…and probably gets discarded.
- On over-the-counter medications, you’ll just read the label or insert inside the box. You will see a list of active ingredients, dosing information, indicated uses, warnings, and inactive ingredients.” If the inactive ingredients are not listed plainly on the label, you will find a folded-up paper inside the box. Most of us discard this. However, if you are taking a new medicine or have medication allergies, it’s a great idea to hold on to this paper.
- For prescription medications, you will receive detailed information on every medication. It’s usually on a packet of papers stapled to the pharmacy bag. Don’t discard this information! You will receive a list of dosing instructions, uses and warnings, active and inactive ingredients, and any other expert advice the pharmacist can add. Also, keep your pharmacist updated on any medical history changes, allergies, or other crucial information. They will keep a record of this in their database to ensure that you are dispensed medications that are safe for you.
All of the inactive ingredients mentioned in this article are generally safe and FDA-approved. In fact, they have passed rigorous testing and trials to achieve that FDA seal. The majority of people take them without incident. While it’s smart to know that there are certain potential side effects, most of us might not even associate a mild headache with aspartame in an over-the-counter acid reliever. It’s only after these symptoms persist, or become severe, that we think to seek medical attention. If symptoms are persistent or severe, always seek immediate medical attention.