“Can I just stop my medication?” This question, frequently asked of primary care doctors, has a complicated answer. For starters, if you are taking a medication that is controlling an ongoing medical problem like high blood pressure, diabetes, or high cholesterol you should never stop it on your own—or your problem will return. Many patients do come clean though, and report that they just plain stopped their meds.
So when is stopping your medication dangerous? Abruptly stopping these 10 medications may make you sick, and lead to dangerous problems. The higher the dose and the longer you’ve been taking them, the worse the problem.
- Catapres (clonidine). This is no joke. Catapres tablets and Catapres-TTS patches are used to treat high blood pressure. Stopping them abruptly may result in a surge of catecholamine release. Rebound very high blood pressures can occur so Clonidine should be weaned slowly. If you’ve been on higher doses of Clonidine this is more likely to occur. Don’t stop this on your own.
- Inderal (propranolol). Beta blockers like propranolol are used to treat high blood pressure and palpitations, and are even prescribed for anxiety symptoms. While all beta blockers may have a mild effect, Inderal is a short-acting beta blocker, and stopping it abruptly may lead to a withdrawal syndrome. In addition to a rise in blood pressure, beta blocker withdrawal in patients with heart disease can lead to chest pain, heart attack, and even sudden death. Crazy thing is this can occur even in patients who have no previous history of heart issues.
- Topamax (topiramate). Taken for epilepsy, migraine headache prevention, weight loss (as one of the active ingredients in Qsymia), and alcohol abuse disorder, this is a medication you should not abruptly discontinue. Instead, taper your dosage gradually over 2 to 8 weeks to prevent rebound effects. Why? Stopping it suddenly increases seizure frequency. This happens, I’ve seen it.
- Effexor XR (venlafaxine ER). Used for depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and menopause symptoms, Effexor carries the nickname “Side-Effexor” partly for this reason: due to its short half-life (how long it takes for the medication to leave your system), stopping and not weaning venlafaxine may lead to horrible withdrawal symptoms. Instead, taper the dose by 37.5 mg to 75 mg per day each week, over four weeks. Abrupt discontinuation of venlafaxine may cause agitation, sweating, dizziness, fatigue, nausea, restlessness, and tremor. Not fun.
- Paxil (paroxetine). A widely used medication prescribed for depression and anxiety, paroxetine is the most likely of the SSRI antidepressants to cause withdrawal symptoms, again due to its short half-life. Paroxetine needs to be tapered down over two to four weeks prior to stopping. If you just stop taking it, symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, lightheadedness, dizziness, sweating, tremors, and sleep disturbances (vivid dreams, insomnia). Wean it down.
- Benzodiazepines. Used for anxiety symptoms, this whole class of medications including alprazolam (Xanax), lorazepam (Ativan) and diazepam (Valium) cannot be stopped abruptly IF you’ve been using them for more than a few weeks. Rebound or withdrawal symptoms, including seizures, may occur following abrupt discontinuation or even large decreases in dose. This is more common if you’ve been taking a high dose, or if you’ve been taking it for a long time The risk of seizures is greatest 24 to 72 hours after you stop, so instead, decrease your doses slowly and monitor for withdrawal symptoms.
- Neurontin (gabapentin). Don’t just stop taking gabapentin, commonly used for neuropathic pain and seizures. Withdrawal symptoms may begin between 12 hours to 7 days after stopping, but most start between 24 and 48 hours. Agitation is the most common and is reported by half of those experiencing symptoms of withdrawal. Confusion and disorientation have also been reported along with sweating, stomach complaints, and insomnia.
- Prednisone and other steroids. Prednisone is prescribed as a potent anti-inflammatory for a variety of conditions including asthma, allergies, hives, inflammatory arthritis, gout, and more. If you’ve been taking prednisone for more than 1-2 weeks and just stop it, you may get into trouble. Why? When you are taking prednisone tablets your own adrenal gland production of cortisol declines. When you abruptly stop taking prednisone the result may be low cortisol, causing weakness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. It’s not fun and can be very serious. Wean it off.
- Opioid pain medications. Opioids are prescription analgesics like codeine, morphine, and hydrocodone (an active ingredient in Vicodin) and if you’ve been taking them long term, abruptly stopping causes symptoms like diarrhea, generalized pain, restlessness and anxiety. Withdrawing from opioids is no joke, wean them down.
- Baclofen. Baclofen is prescribed to decrease muscle cramps, spasms, and rigidity (including in folks with spinal cord injury and multiple sclerosis). Withdrawal is more common when it has been given as an injection directly into the spinal canal, but can also occur with tablets. Withdrawal symptoms include restlessness, insomnia, confusion, hallucinations, seizures, psychotic manic or paranoid states. Interestingly, Baclofen is also used to treat alcohol withdrawal.