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Inactive Ingredients in Medications May Cause Problematic Side Effects

Inactive Ingredients in Medications May Cause Problematic Side Effects

Find out why you might be having atypical reactions to your medication.

The 2007 movie Fast Food Nation is a fictionalized account of what it takes to bring hamburger from farm to drive-thru—and the hidden “ingredients” that horrible slaughterhouse practices add to the meat.

Now, a new study tells the real story about ingredients that are often hidden in your over-the-counter and prescription medications as they go from lab to pharmacy or retail shelf. Turns out inactive ingredients, such as gluten, peanut oil, lactose, certain sugars and food dyes, that are used to help bind, stabilize or boost absorption of medications, are often triggers for gastro problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome, as well as allergenic or sensitivity reactions.

A study published in Science Translational Medicine that looked at ingredients in prescription and nonprescription medications found in most instances inactive ingredients account for more than 50 percent of a medication—and sometimes up to 99 percent! Currently, the FDA requires companies to include an additive warning only for peanut oil and says the amount of other inactive ingredients is next to none. But if you’re someone with a food allergy or sensitivity, a little can still be a lot.

So if you’re having a nontypical reaction to a medication, ask a pharmacist or doctor about inactive ingredients in all versions of the drug—including the various generics. Many may have different “inactive” ingredients. If all versions contain a problematic inactive ingredient, consider ordering a custom formulation from a compounding pharmacy. If it allows you to take needed medication, it could be an important option.

Medically reviewed in December 2019.

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