When you suffer side effects after taking a pill, naturally you blame it on the drug in the pill.
But in many cases, it actually may have nothing to do with the drug.
What most people—or even doctors—don’t know is that the majority of the material in pills are so-called inactive ingredients.
But they are far from inactive, according to an eye-opening study.
It was published online by the journal Science Translational Medicine. The researchers surveyed more than 42,000 medications. These contained almost 360,000 inactive ingredients.[i]
Inactive ingredients are added to drugs for many reasons. Some prolong shelf-life. Others improve taste or absorption. Some make the drug tamper-proof. Some simply add bulk so that the pill is not too tiny.
But it’s not uncommon for people to be allergic to some of those ingredients… Peanut oil, lactose, gluten, and chemical dyes are prime examples.
“Inactive” Ingredients in Drugs Can Harm You
Dr. C. Giovanni Traverso was the study’s lead author. He said that most pills are about 75% inactive ingredients. Pills average about eight inactive ingredients. Some have as many as 38, he said.[ii]
The study found:
- More than 90% of the drugs contain one or more inactive ingredients known to cause allergic reactions. They include hives, gastrointestinal symptoms, and/or difficulty breathing.
- More than half have a type of sugar that patients with irritable bowel syndrome should avoid.
- About 45% of drugs contain lactose. This is bad news if you’re lactose intolerant.
Dr. Marc Siegel is a professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center. He notes that people who think they are allergic to a drug may be mistaken.
“What you thought was an allergy to your blood pressure pill was actually an allergy to lactose,” said Dr. Siegel.
What’s in Your Pills?
Most people throw away the brochure that comes with their prescriptions without a second thought. It usually contains a full list of the ingredients—both active and inactive—in your medication.
Dr. Traverso said you should check the ingredients every time you get a refill. That’s because drug companies often change formulations.
If you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, you need to be especially cautious. Labels may list gluten as “starch.”
You can also search the databases of the U.S. National Library of Medicine. You can find detailed information about whatever drugs you may be taking—including inactive ingredients.
Type the name of the drug into the search bar. When you get the search results, click on the name of the drug. Scroll down to the heading
“Ingredients and Appearance.” Click on it to find a list of all ingredients,
including inactive ones.[iii]
When you take a prescription pill, it’s important to know that you are consuming other ingredients along with the drug that can affect your body.
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