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Why Drug Side Effects Aren't the Same For Men and Women

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Drug Side Effects Taki Steve/Flickr

Did you know that women can experience different side effects from medicine than men? For example, a beneficial side effect of aspirin is prevention of heart disease ... for men. Not true for women.

Because women were not included in the original research on aspirin and heart disease, doctors were unaware that women get no cardiac benefit from prophylactic aspirin. For more than two decades, women were prescribed aspirin and suffered the risk of side effects from aspirin without the protective benefit.

Aspirin is so common, you might be tempted to think there is little harm, however as many as 83 percent of people treated with regular aspirin experience pain in the upper abdomen below the ribs. Aspirin also makes your blood slower to clot and there is also stress on the liver.

Click here to learn more about aspirin's side effects.

These side effects would be worth the risk and discomfort if taking aspirin helped provide primary protection for women to prevent heart attacks, but it doesn't. What's even more appalling is that science researchers could have been seeking another potential simple heart health preventive medicine, but they were unaware that aspirin didn't work for women.

There are many ways to keep hearts healthy, exercise and diet being among the most effective and accessible to all. However, since 1984, more women than men have died of cardiovascular disease, according to the American Heart Association. Science researchers must pay attention to the unique medical and health needs of women as remedies such as aspirin are not a "one size fits all" solution.

So let's start asking questions. Let's recognize that women's health care is different from men's. Periods, birth control and menopause are daily issues for women. About 20 percent of all adult women take a birth control pill daily, or use some other hormone-based birth control.

They can cause weight gain, blood clots and breakthrough bleeding. On the positive side, they can clear acne. These are powerful drugs that are affecting your body 24/7.

That means when you need a prescription for another issue, you need to ask how that new drug will interact with your birth control. Good example: antibiotics can lower the effectiveness of a birth control pill. That's a side effect worth knowing.

Sound complicated? It’s really a matter of opening a dialogue with your doctor, so that you two are partners in your health and well-being.

Still, many women don’t ask. Although it’s true that women make 80 percent of all the medical decisions in the family, the conversation about side effects, more often than not, doesn’t happen. To help jump-start the process, the following are seven questions women should ask:

  1. What is the lowest effective dose?
  2. Can this cause dependency or a rebound effect?
  3. What is the shortest amount of time I need to be on this drug and do I have to wean myself off of it?
  4. What are the potential side effects, such as weight gain, low libido, liver or kidney problems?
  5. What if I’m planning to get pregnant or have an unplanned pregnancy?
  6. Will alcohol or other meds exaggerate or block this med’s effect?
  7. Should I make lifestyle changes or consider alternative therapies?

When a medicine is needed, the benefits are obvious and can even be life-saving. With every medicine comes side effects, however. The more women know about the risks and benefits of each drug, the better the outcome on health for you and your family.

For a free downloadable 7 Questions For Women To Ask About Meds, click here.

Su Robotti is founder and president of MedShadow, an online advocacy source that provides information about the side effects and long-term effects of medication.


A Randomized Trial of Low-Dose Aspirin in the Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease in Women, The New England Journal of Medicine, 7/7/15 http://www.nejm.org/doi/pdf/10.1056/NEJMoa050613

Final Report on the Aspirin Component of the Ongoing Physicians' Health Study, The New England Journal of Medicine, 7/7/15 http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM198907203210301#t=article

Aspirin Side Effects, Drugs.com, 7/7/15. http://www.drugs.com/sfx/aspirin-side-effects.html Heart Disease Statistics at a Glance, American Heart Association, 7/7/15 https://www.goredforwomen.org/about-heart-disease/facts_about_heart_disease_in_women-sub-category/statistics-at-a-glance

Contraceptive Use in the United States, Guttmacher Insitute, 7/7/15. http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/fb_contr_use.html

Birth Control Health Center, WebMD, 7/7/15 http://www.webmd.com/sex/birth-control/birth-control-pills?page=5

Reviewed July 16, 2015
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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