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Medication Effects on Women

By: Ian Murnaghan BSc (hons), MSc - Updated: 25 Oct 2012 | comments*Discuss
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Both over-the-counter and prescription medications can affect women in different ways than men. Many people assume that drugs will affect both sexes equally but this is far from the case for many of the drugs that you keep in your medicine cabinet. These risks can leave women suffering from more side effects as well as compromising the effectiveness of drugs in the body. Unfortunately doctors don't always initiate discussion on the specific risks a medication may carry for women, so it's wise to make a habit of asking for information.

More Side Effects
Put simply, women are more likely to suffer from adverse effects to drugs than men and reactions tend to be of a more serious nature. Women are also more likely to halt medication use if a reaction is particularly unpleasant whereas men will usually continue with the medication course. Some drugs also aren't as effective in women or alternately, can build up to higher levels and result in toxicity.

A woman's anatomy greatly contributes to problems with medication. Women naturally have a higher percentage of body fat in comparison with their male counterparts. This means that the speed of drug metabolism in the body is lower. Because a woman's body takes longer to process and excrete a medication, the potential for it to increase to harmful levels is greater than it is in a man's body. The overall lower body weight and smaller organs also contribute to the differences in medication metabolism for women.

Pattern of Medication Use
Another reason that women are more likely to suffer from ill effects due to medication use is because women are more likely to take several different medications at once, which increases the chances of an adverse effect. Women are also more likely to take natural supplements, which can negatively interact with both over-the-counter and prescription medications.

Pregnancy and Breastfeeding
The effects of many drugs on the developing foetus are still largely unknown and you should always check with your doctor regarding over-the-counter and prescription drugs if you are pregnant or even if you are planning for a pregnancy. Pregnancy hormones will also affect how your body metabolises a drug so even if they don't directly harm the foetus, they can still increase the chance that you will suffer from side effects.

Clinical Trials Usually Use Men
It has often been a standard to use men for drug studies for fear that the fluctuating hormones in women would null the results. There is an element of truth in this approach although currently, studies will look at the specific effects in women rather than solely testing drugs on men before applying cautions to both sexes.

What Can You Do?
Your primary action should be to ask your pharmacist or doctor if a drug has been tested specifically in women and if so, whether there are any significant side effects. Drug labels will also usually include this information if it is available.

Oral Contraception
Many women are still unaware of the potential effects of antibiotics combined with oral contraception and yet, the results can last a lifetime in terms of an unwanted pregnancy. Antibiotics are thought to possibly decrease the effectiveness of the oral contraception pill, which means you are more likely to become pregnant if you don't use a backup method while you are on a course of antibiotics. The relationship between antibiotics and oral contraception hasn't been studied in great depth, simply because most women don't want to partake in a study that could result in an unwanted pregnancy. There have, however, been reports of women becoming pregnant while taking antibiotics and also on the pill. Therefore, it's wise to continue your backup method briefly after your antibiotics are finished because antibiotics will still be active in your system.

Drugs can have very different effects in women and it should not be assumed that a drug gives the same response as it would in a man. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about any possible reactions for prescriptions and always read over-the-counter drug labels carefully to check for any special cautions applicable to women. If in doubt, ask questions. By following instructions that apply to women, you can obtain the full benefit from your medications while minimising any side effects.

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