Pills may be small, but they can have a huge effect on the world. Take, for example, Viagra, the medication that treats men's erectile dysfunction by increasing blood flow. When this little blue pill hit the market in the 1990s, it blew the roof off the pharmaceuticals world, earning a staggering $1 billion in sales in its first year alone.
Viagra also had far reaching social effects. Over 37 million men worldwide rushed to get prescriptions for the seemingly miracle cure for impotency.
While many aging men and their marriages have benefited from the drug it has also been abused by virile men and women who use the drug recreationally in combination with other party drugs. Likewise, there have been reports of young men in the porn industry abusing Viagra for longer erections. Scientists warn that this sort of misuse can lead to dependency on ED drugs and the loss of the ability to develop an erection naturally.
Oral contraception met with some pushback in the beginning; but when it was finally approved and mass-marketed, the birth control pill changed the world handing women the power to control their reproductive system. By doing so it it was instrumental in the sexual revolution.
Initially, the FDA only approved the birth control pill as a treatment for severe menstrual disorders. Not surprisingly though, after it was approved, the number of women showing up at gynecologists in the 1950s complaining of excessive bleeding skyrocketed. This led Searle, the company who made the pill called Envoid, to apply for its approval as an official contraceptive. Before the 1960s were over, other pharmaceutical companies jumped on the bandwagon and sales of "the pill" soared to $150 million.
Penicillin was the very first antibiotic. Without it, more than half of the people alive today would probably never have been born because their ancestors would have succumbed to deadly infections.
Penicillin is actually a mold. And many ancient cultures (think: Greece, Egypt, India) had been using molds to treat infections for years, but a stable strain of the Penicillium fungus wasn't developed until the mid-twentieth century.
Here, a sample of penicillin is displayed at London's Science Museum in 2009, where it was one of the nominees for the greatest scientific invention of the last century. It ultimately lost out to the x-ray machine in a public poll. Stiff competition.
The blockbuster antidepressant drug Prozac was initially tested as a treatment for both obesity and blood pressure, before scientists discovered it could treat general depression by controlling the levels of serotonin in the brain.
The green-and-white pill was approved by the FDA in 1987. A year later, doctors in the U.S. had written 2.47 million prescriptions for the drug. By 2002, that number had grown to 33.3 million. Today, antidepressants are the third most common pill taken in America.
Prozac, the "miracle drug" which was once met with such enthusiasm, is now viewed in a somewhat darker light though. Overhyped and overprescribed, it is seen as the prime example of the pill-happy culture prevalent in the U.S. today; a culture in which people want quick fixes for complex mental problems.
In fact, the very hypothesis that Prozac was built on - that depressed patients are the way they are because the serotonin in their brains has been weakened by a chemical imbalance - has been called into question.
Before insulin, patients with advanced diabetes were placed on a near-starvation diet that ultimately killed them. Their bodies lacked the ability to convert sugar into energy, so the best they could do was limit their eating to the meager amount of food their bodies could metabolize... Not a great solution.
In the early twentieth century, Canadian researchers discovered that Insulin could be used for a sort of hormone replacement therapy. The discovery changed everything for people with diabetes.
And while you may think of insulin as something that can only be injected, there are now various kinds of oral diabetes pills as well.
When aspirin hit the market in 1899, it was revolutionary because it was the first drug to offer a solution for simple pain. Before, people who suffered from headaches, muscle pain or arthritis simply had to endure daily pain because prescribing morphine would have been overkill for those conditions. Then, finally, came a pill that could improve a person's quality of life.
Today, there are countless competitors on the market for the treatment of simple pain. Advil, Aleve, you name it... everyone has their favorite. But interestingly enough, more than a century after its creation, Aspirin is experiencing a resurgence because of its effects on blood clotting. In fact, many patients pop an aspirin a day to reduce their risk of heart attack and stroke.
Approved by the FDA in March of 1987, AZT was the first breakthrough drug in the treatment of AIDS. It safely prolongs the lives of patients with HIV, while also preventing transmission. AZT made it possible for HIV positive mothers not to transmit the virus to their children. It can also be used to prevent infection after a needle stick. Prior to its approval, AIDS was a death sentence.
Zidovudine or azidothymidine, more commonly known as AZT, prevents viral DNA from forming by inhibiting the enzyme that the HIV virus uses to synthesize DNA. There is also a class of HIV drugs, known as protease inhibitors, which are revolutionary in that they can keep HIV levels low enough that patients don't develop AIDS.
Researchers are still hard at work on a cure.
When Thalidomide hit the market in the 1950s, it was hailed as a sort of miracle drug that could offer a safe and sound sleep. It was also given to pregnant women as a sedative that could combat the symptoms of morning sickness. Sadly, it was not discovered that Thalidomide molecules could cross the placental wall, killing and badly maiming fetuses, until it was too late.
Here, a Thalidomide victim speaks with her mother outside a Spanish courthouse, during a trial against the German pharmaceutical company Gruenenthal, which produced the drug Thalidomide, on October 14, 2013.
The drug caused birth defects in an estimated ten to twenty thousand babies, including deafness, blindness and disfigurement. In fact, it affected any part of the fetus that was in development at the time of ingestion. The drug is also responsible for countless miscarriages and stillborn babies around the world. These devastating side effects changed the way drugs are tested and approved worldwide.
In this photo, people affected by phocomelia (malformation of the limbs) due to Thalidomide protest in front of the Spanish parliament (Las Cortes) on April 28, 2015.
The Morning After Pill
Levonorgestrel, more commonly known as PlanB or "the morning after pill," is an emergency contraceptive, which can prevent pregnancy if taken within three days of unprotected sex. It has been revolutionary in the reduction of unwanted pregnancies and abortions, particularly for victims of rape.
In 2013, the Food and Drug Adminstration approved the Plan B contraceptive for sale to women of all ages without a prescription. The pill had previously been restricted to the girls under 17 years of age.
PlanB is still somewhat controversial with right-to-lifers. Critics believe that giving teenagers easy access to the drug will increase levels of sexual activity and encourage promiscuity among that age group. There is also some debate over whether the pill causes an abortion, but scientists insist it does not.
Ritalin was groundbreaking in that it made it possible for children with ADHD to live more normal lives. The drug uses Methylphenidate to manipulate certain natural substances in the brain. In doing so, it can help children stay focused on a task, listen better, control behavioral problems, and pay attention.
After Prozac hit the market in 1988, Americans became focused on the brain as the root of all emotional and behavioral problems. Experts believe that paved the way for the Ritalin Explosion in the early 1990s. Now, much like Prozac, many people believe Ritalin is overhyped and overprescribed; used as a sort of band-aid to fix misbehaving children, while parents ignore the underlying problems at play.
Approved in 1996, Lipitor reduces the risks of both heart attack and stroke by lowering "bad cholesterol." In 2011, the year its patent expired, the drug earned Pfizer a whopping $7.7 billion. Pfizer tried to maintain those sales with an aggressive ad campaign - even after less expensive competitors flooded the market - but ultimately halted those efforts.
Female libido pill?
For decades, the pharmaceuticals industry has been scrambling to come up with a female equivalent of Viagra. Disorders of women's sexual desire, however, have proven resistant to drugs that act on blood flow and hormones because low libido in women often has more to do with stress and relationship issues than a biological imbalance.
Flibanserin is the first drug to approach the issue through brain chemistry. After twice rejecting approval of the drug due to lackluster effectiveness and side effects like fatigue, dizziness and nausea, the FDA approved the drug on August 18, 2015. Experts estimate that as many as 16 million women may order the drug.
Female libido pill?
Low libido is a huge problem for women worldwide and puts a strain on relationships. As such, Flibanserin has gotten a ton of hype, with people coining it the "female Viagra."
The problem, however, is that the drug itself is only marginally effective and isn't likely to be the world-changing solution so many women are hoping for.