Drugs and Supplements

Number of babies born in withdrawal from prescription painkillers is on the rise

Claire McCarthy, MD
Claire McCarthy, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

Each year, an alarming number of babies born in the United States spend their first few days withdrawing from drugs, often prescription painkillers their mothers took during their pregnancies. This problem, called neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), has increased fourfold since 2004, according to a report published online yesterday in The New England Journal of Medicine. NAS occurs in many babies whose mothers took a type of medication called an opioid during pregnancy. (Two commonly used opioids are OxyContin and Vicodin.) These drugs easily pass from the mother’s bloodstream to the baby’s. In effect, NAS is a baby’s withdrawal from opioids. With medication and time, babies with NAS get better, but they have to spend time in the hospital. In short, they get a rough start on life that can set them back and possibly have long-term repercussions. With so many safe options for pain control, women who are pregnant should use opioids only if these medications are absolutely necessary.

Folic acid, a B vitamin, lowers stroke risk in people with high blood pressure

Julie Corliss
Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

If you’re among the one in three American adults with high blood pressure, be sure you’re getting plenty of the B vitamin known as folate. Doing so may lower your odds of having a stroke, an often disabling or deadly event linked to high blood pressure. That’s the conclusion of a large trial conducted in China, where many people don’t get enough folate. Most Americans get plenty of folate or its synthetic version, folic acid. That’s largely because grain folic acid is added to most grain products, including wheat flour, cornmeal, pasta, and rice. It’s a good idea for everyone to do a diet check to make sure it delivers enough folate. Good sources include green leafy vegetables, beans, and citrus fruits.

PCSK9 inhibitors: a major advance in cholesterol-lowering drug therapy

Gregory Curfman, MD
Gregory Curfman, MD, Editor in Chief, Harvard Health Publications

Every so often, a medical advance comes along that rewrites the script for treating a disease or condition. After today’s announcement of impressive results of a new type of cholesterol-lowering drug, that scenario just might happen in the next few years. The results of three clinical trials presented today at the annual meeting of the American College of Cardiology, and simultaneously published in the New England Journal of Medicine, suggest that a class of new drugs called PCSK9 inhibitors can dramatically reduce the amount of harmful LDL cholesterol circulating in the bloodstream and prevent heart attacks, strokes, and other problems related to cholesterol-clogged arteries. The drawbacks are that PCSK9 inhibitors must be given by injection every 2 to 4 weeks, may cause mental confusion or trouble paying attention, and, if approved, will likely be expensive.

Edible marijuana — a half-baked idea?

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Marijuana-laced brownies have long been a way to get high. Now a new generation of “food companies” is taking the concept of edible marijuana in a somewhat scary new direction: marijuana-laced foods that mimic popular candies. These sweets could pose a danger to children, warns a Perspective article in today’s New England Journal of Medicine. From a marketing perspective, it’s a cute concept to sell Buddahfingers that look like Butterfingers, Rasta Reese’s that mimic Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, or Pot Tarts that resemble Pop-Tarts. But the availability of edible marijuana products has led to an increase in emergency visits to hospitals because of kids accidentally eating edible marijuana products and in marijuana-related calls to poison and drug hotlines.

Millions of adults skip medications due to their high cost

Howard LeWine, M.D.
Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor, Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

Medications can do wonderful things, from fighting infection to preventing stroke and warding off depression. But medications don’t work if they aren’t taken. Some people don’t take their medications as prescribed because they forget, or are bothered by side effects. A new report from the National Center for Health Statistics shines the light on another reason: nearly 1 in 10 people skip medications because they can’t pay for them. Other strategies for saving money on drug costs included asking doctors for lower-cost medications, buying prescription drugs from other countries, and using alternative therapies. Not taking medications as prescribed can cause serious problems. It can lead to unnecessary complications related to a medical condition. It can lead to a bad outcome, like a heart attack or stroke. It can also increase medical costs if hospitalization or other medical interventions are needed. Safe money-saving options include using generic drugs when possible, pill splitting, shopping around, and making lifestyle changes such as exercising more and following a healthier diet, which can sometimes decrease the number and dose of drugs needed.

Common anticholinergic drugs like Benadryl linked to increased dementia risk

Beverly Merz
Beverly Merz, Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

A new report from the University of Washington links long-term use of anticholinergic medications and dementia. Anticholinergic drugs block the action of acetylcholine. This substance transmits messages in the nervous system. In the brain, acetylcholine is involved in learning and memory. In the rest of the body, it stimulates muscle contractions. Anticholinergic drugs include some antihistamines, tricyclic antidepressants, medications to control overactive bladder, and drugs to relieve the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. The study found that people who used anticholinergic drugs were more likely to have developed dementia as those who didn’t use them. Dementia risk increased with the cumulative dose. Taking an anticholinergic for the equivalent of three years or more was associated with a 54% higher dementia risk than taking the same dose for three months or less. Safer alternatives to anticholinergic drugs exist.

Report highlights the dangers of opioid painkillers

Daniel Pendick

Opioid painkillers like hydrocodone and oxycodone offer blessed relief from pain. But the body gets used to them, requiring ever-higher doses. They are also addictive, cause side effects, and can kill. A report in the New England Journal of Medicine says prescription painkiller abuse accounts for about 17,000 deaths a year. Doctors are learning to say no to opioids, but have limited scientific guidance on when and how to best use them for chronic pain. Ideally, these drugs should prescribed for the shortest time possible and, if pain persists, a transition made to a non-addictive form of pain control. This may be other medications or specialized counseling from a pain specialist that might include complementary and alternative treatments, like acupuncture and meditation.

Vitamin D testing not recommended for most people

Julie Corliss
Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

Over the past decade, a barrage of reports linking low vitamin D levels to cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and a host of other ills led many doctors to routinely test vitamin D levels in their healthy patients. But there is no good reason to do that, according to a new recommendation from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) published in this week’s Annals of Internal Medicine. The task force concluded that it isn’t helpful for most people to know their vitamin D level, and that even if you have a “low” vitamin D level there’s little evidence that taking a vitamin D supplement will do most people any good.

Bleeding risk from new blood thinner Pradaxa higher than first reported

Howard LeWine, M.D.
Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor, Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

The FDA’s approval in 2010 of the blood-thinner dabigatran (Pradaxa) got many doctors excited. It was at least as effective as warfarin for preventing stroke-causing blood clots, and possibly caused fewer bleeding side effects. In addition, it is easier to use. Since then, studies of Pradaxa have slightly dampened the enthusiasm for the new drug. For example, a new study from the University of Pittsburgh showed that Pradaxa cause more episodes of serious bleeding (9%) than warfarin (6%). The bleeding sites tended to differ. Bleeding in the stomach and intestines was slightly higher among Pradaxa users. Bleeding in the head was slightly higher among warfarin users. Black patients and those with chronic kidney disease were more likely to bleed from Pradaxa.

FDA approves weight-loss drug Contrave

Howard LeWine, M.D.
Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor, Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

For the third time in two years, the FDA has approved a drug to help people lose weight. The new drug, Contrave, combines two generic drugs, naltrexone and bupropion. Naltrexone is used to help kick an addiction to alcohol or narcotics. Bupropion is used to treat depression and seasonal affective disorder. Many people also take bupropion to stop smoking. Neither naltrexone nor bupropion by itself has been approved for weight loss. Specifically, Contrave was approved for use by adults who are obese (meaning a body-mass index of 30 or higher) and by overweight adults (body-mass index between 27 and 30) who have at least one other weight-related condition or illness, such as high blood pressure or type 2 diabetes. Across the clinical trials on which the FDA based its approval, some people lost more than 5% of their body weight. But it’s important to note that more than 50% had minimal or no weight loss. Side effects ranging from seizures and high blood pressure to diarrhea and constipation were reported.