Medications are supposed to make us better, not worse. Except that sometimes, the medications we take do a little more than we ask them to. For most people, taking medicine for any affliction is a trade-off: no more urinary tract infection, but now that the antibiotics have killed off all your helpful bacteria, you’re stuck with a yeast infection. Congratulations—you’re sort of cured!
We’re used to suffering a little bit for the greater good. Many common prescriptions cause mild but tolerable side effects, like nausea, loss of appetite, or drowsiness, and if the condition is severe enough, we’ll even put up with moderately upsetting side effects, such as weight gain, sensitivity to light, or heartburn. But there are some drugs out there whose side effects—while rare—are bizarre enough to cause some people to decide they’d rather live with the affliction than with the treatment.
Chantix—Extreme Sleep Disturbances
Many drugs cause insomnia, but a large number of Chantix users report having extremely vivid dreams, disturbing hallucinations, night terrors, and nightmares when they take this smoking-cessation medication; some have even reported other severe changes in mood or behavior. The good news is that even though Chantix acknowledges that “changes in dreaming” are a common side effect, it boasts a 44 percent success rate in helping people kick a terrible habit. Many who have tried the drug, however, find the hallucinations and dreams too upsetting; it’s actually been known to cause suicidal ideation—even in patients without a history of mental illness.
Requip, Mirapex—Impulse Control Disorders
These medications belong to a class of drugs called dopamine agonists. These specific brands’ primary use is to treat restless-leg syndrome, but they’re being prescribed increasingly for early-stage Parkinson’s disease as well, and many who have taken them have reported suddenly developing compulsive urges and behavior. In one study of three thousand Parkinson’s patients, researchers found that 13.6 percent had developed impulse-control disorders, such as compulsive gambling, compulsive shopping, binge eating, and hypersexuality. The study showed that men were more likely to be affected than women, as were those patients who had developed early-onset Parkinson’s, smoked cigarettes, or had a family history of such disorders. Both brand-name medications have also been associated with hallucinations and amnesia.
This antimalarial drug was developed at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research for distribution to combat troops in malaria-affected regions of the world. Many doctors also prescribed the drug to American tourists traveling to South America, Asia, and Africa, until reports surfaced of patients on Lariam who had experienced dissociative breaks with reality, exhibited psychotic or violent behaviors, and in some cases even committed crimes. In one incident, two soldiers on Lariam killed their wives; among civilians, the drug has been blamed for several suicides. Some studies have shown that Lariam (also called mefloquine) causes side effects in up to 25 percent of those who take it, including “violent behavior,” “losing touch with reality,” “feeling that others want to harm you,” or “thoughts of hurting or killing yourself.” Because of the risks, the Army has ceased prescribing Lariam when other antimalarial drugs would work better, and doctors have cautioned against prescribing it to anyone with a history of depression, anxiety, or any neurological disorder.
Effexor—“Brain Shivers” and Vertigo
This second-line treatment for depression is one of the most-prescribed drugs in the SSRI class. When taken regularly and properly, it doesn’t cause different side effects than other, similar drugs do, but it’s become known for causing particularly harsh withdrawal symptoms, which, because of the drug’s short half-life, can begin after even one missed dose. Many people experience moderate to severe vertigo while trying to taper off the drug, and many report an effect referred to variously as “brain shivers,” “brain shocks,” or “cranial zings,” which manifest as strange sensory experiences and electric shock–like feelings. Other SSRIs, such as Paxil, have been known to cause similar experiences during withdrawal.
Xeloda—Loss of Fingerprints
Cancer drugs and chemotherapy agents are known for their brutal side effects, but a few, including Xeloda, cause a reaction called Palmar-Plantar Erythrodysesthesia, in which small amounts of the drug leak out of the capillaries in the hands and feet. In response to the friction these body parts sustain, the extremities swell and skin peels and reddens. Because of the burning, swelling, peeling skin, people with PPE (also called hand-foot syndrome) have no detectable fingerprints. Many traveling cancer patients have run into problems at U.S. customs when their identity could not be verified.
Lipitor, a member of a cholesterol-reducing class of drugs called statins, has been associated with transient global amnesia (TGA), a temporary loss of memory. Patients experiencing TGA have no idea where they are or how they got there, or exhibit other strange behavior. The attacks are usually brief and leave no lingering aftereffects, but there’s no way to anticipate or prepare for one in advance. This effect is extremely rare, but many patients report feeling “foggy” or having memory problems after starting to take Lipitor, Zocor, or other, similar drugs.
Luckily, most drugs perform their function without causing undue hardships. These side effects are far from common—only a rare and unlucky few patients experience them. However, if you ever suspect that your prescriptions are causing you to lose your inhibitions, your memory, your fingerprints, or your mind, don’t hesitate to tell your doctor.