10 Popular Drugs' Lethal Side Effects -- Now a Series of Pretty Charts!

Last Updated May 12, 2011 10:09 AM EDT

If you combined Google's simple search box with Compete's easy-to-understand web traffic charts and applied it to the FDA 's "adverse event" database of pharmaceutical side effects you'd end up with something that looks like DrugCite.

Launched at the end of April, DrugCite lets patients search for the names of drugs and see how many problems have been linked to them. The data is presented in the form of a timeline, so you can see rising and falling trends, and in rankings of most-reported categories of problems and specific problems.

It's a refreshing change from the way the FDA presented the data, which was impenetrable to all but the most determined Excel geek.

DrugCite is useful for consumers who want to know if the side effects they're experiencing are common or not; for drug companies who want an easy way to detect problems with their products; and for plaintiffs' lawyers looking to identify drugs that may be injuring people more often than they should.

Here's a sampling of DrugCite's data on a selection of drugs that are either popular or controversial. Click to enlarge the images:

The cholesterol drug is one of the most widely used in the country and unsurprisingly has a large amount of reported side effects. Adverse event reports peak and decline cyclically over time but have declined of late, probably as cheaper generic statin drugs eat away at the Pfizer (PFE) brand's franchise.

Most worrying for Pfizer is that "muscle" issues (with 9,291 complaints) are the largest catgory of events and mylagia (muscle pain), with 3,696 events is the largest specific symptom reported for Lipitor. Pfizer is being sued for allegedly ignoring muscle problems associated with Lipitor.

Worryingly, suicidal behavior is the most common category of complaint about Vicodin, with "completed suicide" at 1,503 events as most common specific symptom. That sounds like a lot, but remember that this painkiller (and its copies) are the most-prescribed type of drug in the U.S.
The good news for this Bayer (BAYRY) contraceptive is that gastrointestinal (2,486 events) and gallbladder (2,271 events) are the most common categories of report, not lethal blood clots. Yaz has attracted lawsuits for allegedly causing a higher risk of dangerous clotting; pulmonary embolism and deep vein thrombosis are the two specific events most reported with Yaz.

There is a fairly low level of both categories of complaints and specfic complaints about Botox -- it's always good news for a drug company when "drug ineffective" is the most common problem (2,730 events). However, "neurological" issues, at 1,161 reports, are the most common category of issues. That's interesting because a small number of lawsuits have been brought suggesting that Botox can travel from the site of its injection and cause brain damage.

Pfizer's anti-smoking drug got a lot of media coverage for its association with suicidal and violent thoughts, but this chart suggests that complaints to the FDA about rose and fell along with the media coverage.

The FDA has previously accused Pfizer of not reporting vision problems associated with Viagra, and lo and behold there are 417 reports of blindness associated with the drug and "vision" issues are the second-most reported category of issues, with 1,791 events.

AstraZeneca (AZN) has been fighting lawsuits alleging its antipsychotic Seroquel triggers weight gain and diabetes. The DrugCite database shows a huge number of category complaints about glucose metabolism disorders -- 24,026 -- associated with the drug; and diabetes, pancreatitis and weight gain being the biggest specific complaints.

Is OxyContin addictive? Hell yes, at least according to the data.

This GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) antidepressant has been the subject of all sorts of complaints, including triggering suicide. Self-harming thoughts got 1,686 reports in the DrugCite database, but it is far from Paxil's biggest problem side effect, according to the data.

The most surprising result of the 10 listed here is the fact that Nuvigil -- a new sleep disorder drug from Cephalon (CEPH) -- is associated with Stevens-Johnson Syndrome. SJS is a potential lethal skin toxicity condition in which a patient's skin blisters and in severe cases detaches itself from the body, killing the patient. You can see the number of complaints about Nuvigil rise as the drug was launched in late 2007. SJS is the top complaint about the drug, although with only 27 instances it remains a rare condition. Nuvigil's label does warn about SJS, but it's not widely known that the pill carries that risk:


Related: Hat tip to Internet Drug News.
Image by Flickr user chego101, CC.

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