5 Common Medications That Can Kill

Dr. Sharon Orrange
Dr. Orrange is an Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine in the Division of Geriatric, Hospitalist and General Internal Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
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You probably already know that many prescriptions have side effects. Most are mild—annoying issues like nausea or sleepiness that are inconvenient at worst. Others, however, can be deadly.

A very small number of medications are responsible for the majority of adverse side effects and hospitalizations from harmful drug reactions. How bad are these drugs? Between 2007 to 2009, almost 100,000 patients older than 65 had emergency hospitalizations for dangerous drug reactions, and almost 20,000 people die from prescription drug overdoses annually.

Opioid painkillers like hydrocodone and Vicodin are the most common cause of overdoses. Our list, however, focuses on drugs that aren’t addictive and may not seem dangerous but can sometimes lead to hospitalizations, especially for seniors. All of these drugs have positive benefits and can save lives, but it’s important to take them correctly.

Here they are—GoodRx’s list of 5 medications with hidden dangers:

  1. Warfarin (Coumadin). Warfarin led to a staggering 33% of hospitalizations for adverse drug events from 2007 to 2009. Warfarin is used as a blood thinner in people with artificial heart valves, clots in the leg, or atrial fibrillation. Unintentional overdoses of warfarin make the blood too thin and unable to clot, so bleeding is a well known complication. This blood thinner saves lives and protects you from stroke, but you must keep a close eye on your INR blood test.
  2. Insulin. Insulin use in diabetics contributes to 14% of medication-related hospitalizations. Diabetics get into trouble with low blood sugars (hypoglycemia) from using too much insulin. The upside here is that the newer long-acting insulins like Lantus and Levemir carry less risk of dropping sugars.
  3. Clopidogrel (Plavix). Used as a platelet inhibitor, Plavix is often taken along with aspirin and is intended to prevent harmful clots. People who have stent placement after angioplasty for coronary artery disease will take Plavix to prevent occlusion of those stents. That’s a good thing. The downside, however, is it leads to 13% of hospitalizations from adverse events. Bleeding into the brain and gastrointestinal bleeding (from the stomach or esophagus) are known risks of this medication.
  4. Glipizide, glyburide, and the other oral diabetes medications called sulfonylureas. We don’t prescribe these nearly as often as we used to, which is a good thing. Most adverse events and hospitalizations are due to low blood sugars from these medications. What is scary is hypoglycemia related to sulfonylureas often occurs at night when you are sleeping and can’t pay attention to the warning signs. Newer diabetes medications (metformin and Januvia) do not lead to hypoglycemia.
  5. NSAIDS (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) like ibuprofen (Motrin) and naproxen. NSAIDs also carry the risk of bleeding as an unwanted side effect, and can cause stomach and esophageal ulcers. Long term use has also been linked to increased risk of coronary artery disease.

The bottom line: take your medications as directed!

Dr O.

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