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Acetaminophen Safety: How Safe is Tylenol’s Active Ingredient?

Acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, is an over-the-counter drug that many people think is benign. It’s been regarded as safe enough to use through pregnancy. As someone who used to pop large numbers of OTC painkillers each day, I’m increasingly horrified when new information comes out about the safety risks of acetaminophen. Most people don’t take high enough doses to be in danger, but people with headache disorders or chronic pain are at risk of taking too much without even knowing it. The risk isn’t necessarily in long-term use; exceeding the maximum daily dose in one 24-hour period can cause severe liver damage.

This infographic from the University of Florida’s pharmacy program highlights some of the risks and dangers of acetaminophen. If you’re concerned about your acetaminophen use, please talk to your doctor about alternatives. Some of the alternatives recommended below, like NSAIDs and opioids, also have limits to how often they should be taken; many opioids are packaged in pills that contain acetaminophen, which negates their use as an acetaminophen substitute.

(Click anywhere in the infographic for a larger, easier-to-read version.)

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Wellbutrin Side Effects

Dizziness is one of Wellbutrin’s most well-known side effects, one with which I’ve become intimately familiar. Since I know I need an antidepressant right now and refuse to take any with sexual side effects, I’ve become experienced in managing Wellbutrin side effects. In addition to dizziness, I’ve had some trouble with insomnia. This information stems from dealing with those problems, but it may be helpful for other side effects, as well.

The main points:

  • Try different release types
  • Take the meds with food
  • Try different ways of taking different dosages (example: for 300 mg, take 200 in the morning and 100 in the afternoon or vice versa)
  • Try generics from different manufacturers
  • Try the name brand drug, if possible

Wellbutrin (generic: bupropion) comes in regular release, sustained release (SR) and extended release (XL). I started on 200 mg of the generic sustained release. My diet is heavily restricted, so I don’t eat many calories at once and eat few carbohydrates, both of which seem to make me more susceptible to dizziness. I could manage as long as I consumed 800 calories before my first dose and took the second dose six hours later.

Then I increased my dose to 300 mg a day, which added insomnia to the dizziness. If I took 200 mg in the morning, I got dizzy and stayed that way all day. Taking 200 mg in the afternoon caused less dizziness, but made it difficult for me to fall asleep and stay asleep.

So I switched to 300 mg of the generic extended release, taken in two 150 mg tablets with breakfast. I still had a little bit of dizziness, but it was pretty mild, and no trouble with sleep. Then I started taking the 300 mg in a single tablet and wound up with intense dizziness that even kicked up when I rolled over in bed.

The question is whether I did better with two 150 mg tablets because there were two pills or because they are manufactured by a different company than the 300 mg tabs. I’m guessing the latter since generic drugs have the same active ingredient as name brand drugs, but the other ingredients may differ and, thus, may have different side effects.

Which leads to what will be my next experiment — taking two 150 mg tablets of Wellbutrin XL, the brand name extended release version. If my insurance company approves it, I’ll let you know how the experiment goes.

(And now you know why my posts have been sporadic and I’ve been slow to respond to email and comments the last few months. Computer time is the first thing to go when I’m dizzy. Today it feels manageable; we’ll see if that lasts.)

Update: I got the dizziness under control a few ways:

  1. I always take it with food, usually about 30 minutes after eating.
  2. I split the dose, one with breakfast and two around 3p. (It can cause insomnia, so you might need to take it earlier.)
  3. When those two things stopped being sufficient, I switched to name brand Wellbutrin XL (I was on generic XL before that).

If name brand Wellbutrin isn’t an option (insurance companies often don’t cover it), you could try generic bupropion from a different manufacturer. Ingredients vary enough from one manufacturer to the next that switching to another generic can do the trick. The downside is that you may have to try generics from multiple companies to find one that doesn’t have side effects for you. To switch, find out which company makes the bupropion that’s causing your dizziness (it should be on the bottle or your pharmacist can tell you). Then ask your pharmacist if they stock another brand or are able to order a different brand for you. This usually is no problem, but there’s a chance you’ll need to try a different pharmacy.

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Insurance Companies Shifting Drugs to “Non-Preferred” to Raise Co-Pays

Health insurance companies can no longer deny patients coverage because of pre-existing conditions, but there’s no denying we’re expensive to insure. The latest strategy to increase profit is shifting even generic medications to “non-preferred” status, according to a story by ProPublica and The New York Times’ The Upshot. Patients pay higher co-pays for non-preferred medications. For some illness, all generics are listed as non-preferred. Migraine is mentioned in the story, which probably means triptans will be shifted to non-preferred (which could affect people with cluster headache as well).

Here’s the report in full, republished with permission:

A New Way Insurers are Shifting Costs to the Sick

By charging higher prices for generic drugs that treat certain illness, health insurers may be violating the spirit of the Affordable Care Act, which bans discrimination against those with pre-existing conditions.
by Charles Ornstein
ProPublica, Sep. 17, 2014, 11 a.m.

Health insurance companies are no longer allowed to turn away patients because of their pre-existing conditions or charge them more because of those conditions. But some health policy experts say insurers may be doing so in a more subtle way: by forcing people with a variety of illnesses — including Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and epilepsy — to pay more for their drugs.

Insurers have long tried to steer their members away from more expensive brand name drugs, labeling them as “non-preferred” and charging higher co-payments. But according to an editorial to be published Thursday in the American Journal of Managed Care, several prominent health plans have taken it a step further, applying that same concept even to generic drugs.

The Affordable Care Act bans insurance companies from discriminating against patients with health problems, but that hasn’t stopped them from seeking new and creative ways to shift costs to consumers. In the process, the plans effectively may be rendering a variety of ailments “non-preferred,” according to the editorial.

“It is sometimes argued that patients should have ‘skin in the game’ to motivate them to become more prudent consumers,” the editorial says. “One must ask, however, what sort of consumer behavior is encouraged when all generic medicines for particular diseases are ‘non-preferred’ and subject to higher co-pays.”

I recently wrote about the confusion I faced with my infant son’s generic asthma and allergy medication, which switched cost tiers from one month to the next. Until then, I hadn’t known that my plan charged two different prices for generic drugs. If your health insurer does not use such a structure, odds are that it will before long.

The editorial comes several months after two advocacy groups filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights of the United States Department of Health and Human Services claiming that several Florida health plans sold in the Affordable Care Act marketplace discriminated against H.I.V. patients by charging them more for drugs.

Specifically, the complaint contended that the plans placed all of their H.I.V. medications, including generics, in their highest of five cost tiers, meaning that patients had to pay 40 percent of the cost after paying a deductible. The complaint is pending.

“It seems that the plans are trying to find this wiggle room to design their benefits to prevent people who have high health needs from enrolling,” said Wayne Turner, a staff lawyer at the National Health Law Program, which filed the complaint alongside the AIDS Institute of Tampa, Fla.

Turner said he feared a “race to the bottom,” in which plans don’t want to be seen as the most attractive for sick patients. “Plans do not want that reputation.”

In July, more than 300 patient groups, covering a range of diseases, wrote to Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the secretary of health and human services, saying they were worried that health plans were trying to skirt the spirit of the law, including how they handled co-pays for drugs.

Generics, which come to the market after a name-brand drug loses its patent protection, used to have one low price in many insurance plans, typically $5 or $10. But as their prices have increased, sometimes sharply, many insurers have split the drugs into two cost groupings, as they have long done with name-brand drugs. “Non-preferred” generic drugs have higher co-pays, though they are still cheaper than brand-name drugs.

With brand names, there’s usually at least one preferred option in each disease category. Not so for generics, the authors of the editorial found.

One of the authors, Gerry Oster, a vice president at the consulting firm Policy Analysis, said he stumbled upon the issue much as I did. He went to his pharmacy to pick up a medication he had been taking for a couple of years. The prior month it cost him $5, but this time it was $20.

As he looked into it, he came to the conclusion that this phenomenon was unknown even to health policy experts. “It’s completely stealth,” he said.

In some cases, the difference in price between a preferred and non-preferred generic drug is a few dollars per prescription. In others, the difference in co-pay is $10, $15 or more.

Even small differences in price can make a difference, though, the authors said. Previous research has found that consumers are less likely to take drugs that cost more out of pocket. “There’s very strong evidence for quite some time that even a $1 difference in out-of-pocket expenditures changes Americans’ behavior” regarding their use of medical services, said the other co-author, Dr. A. Mark Fendrick, a physician and director of the University of Michigan Center for Value-Based Insurance Design.

Fendrick said the strategy also ran counter to efforts by insurance companies to tie physicians’ pay to their patients’ outcomes. “I am benchmarked on what my diabetic patients’ blood sugar control is,” he said. “I am benchmarked on whether my patients’ hypertension or angina” is under control, he said. Charging more for generic drugs to treat these conditions “flies directly in the face of a national movement to move from volume to value.”

If there are no cheaper drugs offered, patients might just skip taking their pills, Fendrick said.

The authors reviewed the drug lists, called formularies, of six prescription drugs plans: Harvard Pilgrim Health Care in Massachusetts; Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan; Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois; Geisinger Health Plan in Pennsylvania; Aetna; and Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alaska. They wanted to see how each plan handled expert-recommended generic drugs for 10 conditions.

The conditions are not all high cost like H.I.V. and Parkinson’s. They also include migraine headaches, community acquired pneumonia and high blood pressure.

Premera and Aetna had preferred generic drugs for each of the 10 conditions the authors examined. Harvard Pilgrim, a nonprofit often considered among the nation’s best, did not have a lower-cost generic in any of the 10 categories.

Four of the six plans had no preferred generic antiretroviral medication for patients with H.I.V.

In a statement to ProPublica, Harvard Pilgrim said it charges more for some generics because they are more expensive. The cheapest generics carry a $5 co-payment for a 30-day supply. More expensive generics range from $10 to $25, or 20 percent of the cost for a 30-day supply. The health plan said its members pay less for their medications than the industry average.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois said that its preferred generics had no co-payment at all, and that non-preferred generics cost $10. “We historically only had one tier of generic drugs at a $10 co-pay,” the spokeswoman Mary Ann Schultz said in an email.

The Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan spokeswoman Helen Stojic said the editorial looked only at its drug plan for Medicare patients, which the government closely regulates. Under Medicare, patients can appeal a drug’s tier and seek to pay a lower co-payment, she said.

Geisinger did not respond to questions.

Health plans that participate in Medicare’s prescription drug program, known as Part D, have been moving rapidly to create two tiers of generic drugs. This year, about three-quarters of plans had them, according to an article co-written by Jack Hoadley, a health policy analyst at Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute. The practical effect of such arrangements probably varies based on the difference in cost, he said.

Dan Mendelson, chief executive of Avalere Health, a consulting firm, has studied the way in which health insurers structure their benefits. He said the increasing number of drug tiers in some plans was confusing for patients.

“Consumers often don’t understand which drugs are where,” he said. “They don’t understand the purpose of tiering. They just get to the pharmacy counter and it gets done to them.”

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Hormonal Birth Control for Menstrual Migraine & Insurance Denials

Despite the Affordable Care Act’s required coverage of birth control, some insurers are denying coverage of the birth control patch or NuvaRing, NPR reports. There are a few exceptions to the rule, but nearly all health plans are required to cover all FDA-approved birth control. If you have been denied coverage, NPR recommends appealing the denial and contacting your state insurance board.

How is this relevant to headache/migraine/chronic illness? Hormonal birth control is one method of managing menstrually associated migraine attacks, which tend to be more severe than the migraines a woman has other times of the month. The patch and the ring provide a steadier dose of hormones than a pill does, which makes them more effective for this purpose.

I’ve been using NuvaRing continuously (with one-week breaks every three or four months) since January 2010 and it has been tremendously helpful. Now, the most severe migraines I get happen the few times a year I have to stop the ring for a withdrawal bleed. (You can learn more about skipping periods on The Well-Timed Period.)

This method is generally not recommended for women who have migraine with aura, who are at greater risk of stroke if they use hormonal birth control. However, I recommend talking it over with your headache specialist to decide if it is a good option for you, whether you have migraine with or without aura. Given the frequency and severity of my migraines, my headache specialist said he’d advise me to continue using the NuvaRing even if I did have migraine with aura.

(If you don’t want to/can’t use hormonal birth control for some reason, triptans can be used to prevent menstrual migraine attacks.)

I always love to read your comments, but I’m on vacation and won’t be able to reply until the week of Sept. 8. Please don’t think I’m ignoring you!

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Testing Ausanil, Capsaicin Nasal Spray for Migraine & Headache

Capsaicin (an active component of chili peppers) as a treatment for migraine, severe headaches or pain flits in and out of the news. For migraine, the preferred form is a nasal spray. Ausanil, a nasal spray of capsaicin and ginger, is the latest entry into the marketplace.

The company sent me a free sample bottle and, after I tested it once, I interviewed company founder Dr. Anjan Chatterjee. Dr. Chatterjee is a neurologist by training who has worked in drug development for the last 10 years. He also has migraine and is unable to take many medications, but has found relief with Ausanil, which he’s been using for three years.

How Ausanil is Said to Work

Capsaicin nasal spray is thought to work for headache and migraine by desensitizing the trigeminal nerve (which it accesses through the nose) and reduces CGRP, thus reducing swelling and inflammation. CGRP, as we’re learning, is thought to play a pivotal role in migraine.

The Research

Capsaicin is known to be effective for pain relief, but there’s not resounding evidence – or even very many studies – that show its efficacy for any headache disorder. Civamide, a lab-created version of capsaicin, was promising in a few small studies, but drug development was halted early. I don’t know if that’s because it wasn’t very effective, didn’t have a high enough profit potential, patients hated the sting or if it was due to some other reason.

A study presented at the American Academy of Neurology last week tested intranasal capsaicin (presumably Ausanil, since Dr. Chatterjee was one of the researchers and his company is mentioned in the PR materials) in 18 patients with a variety of headache disorders that cause severe pain (including migraine, cluster headache and tension-type headache). Thirteen participants reported complete pain relief, four had some relief and one had no relief. Relief lasted between 30 minutes and several hours. (According to those criteria, the 30 minutes of pain relief the first time I tried Ausanil would be considered a positive response, even though the pain came back even worse than before I used it.)

My Experience

I wanted to test Ausanil as any consumer would, so I tried it before I talked to Dr. Chatterjee. I read the package instructions, looked at the website and watched the YouTube video on using Ausanil correctly. That’s more thorough than I usually am. I was about to spray chili pepper up my nose and didn’t want it to hurt more than necessary.

Use 1: I sprayed Ausanil in both nostrils. It burned. A lot. The stinging hurt intensely for about 15 minutes and was gone after 30. The initial pain relief was also gone after 30 minutes… and the migraine came back worse than before I used the spray.

Use 2: After talking with Dr. Chatterjee, I gave the spray another try. This time, I only sprayed it in the left nostril since the migraine was concentrated above my left eye. The stinging wasn’t as intense, likely because it was only one nostril, but it still hurt. The spray didn’t provide any pain relief this time, not even through the distraction of the stinging. It didn’t make the migraine worse, though it seemed to render ineffective the triptan I took 15 minutes beforehand.

Two tests were enough (in fact, Dr. Chatterjee usually says that if it doesn’t work, a person shouldn’t bother trying it again). Considering the potential pain of a migraine, the stinging isn’t a big deal. I would gladly trade 30 minutes of burning in my nose to stop a migraine attack. Except that it didn’t work for me.

In our call, Dr. Chatterjee said that only a few people, all of whom have chronic migraine, have told the company that the spray made the migraine worse. Most users either have a response or they don’t.

What You Need to Know

  • Ausanil will sting and burn when you spray it in your nose. There’s no way around that side effect. Participants in Dr. Chatterjee’s recent study said the burn lasted 2-10 minutes. He told me that the sting lessens over time and that he barely feels it anymore.
  • Watch the YouTube video on the correct use of Ausanil.
  • Don’t inhale.
  • Spray it only in the nostril on the side that the migraine is on. If you have pain on both sides, you can spray it in both nostrils, but it will burn more.
  • Have Kleenex nearby. You may sneeze, your nose may run or your eyes might water. Use a separate tissue for your eyes and your nose so you don’t get any residual capsaicin in your eyes.
  • Check Ausanil’s website to learn more about the product and how it works. You can also watch testimonials from patients for whom it has been effective.

Bottom Line

I recommend giving Ausanil a try if your headaches or migraines are severe. Yes, it burns, but the burn lasts way less time than the headache or migraine would. Other than that, there are no documented side effects. The research doesn’t strongly support the use of intranasal capsaicin for headache disorders, but there’s enough there that it’s worth a try, especially if you’re not getting relief elsewhere.

To Buy

  • Ausanil is currently $28.95 (with free shipping) for an 8 ml bottle on Amazon. It’s strength is listed as 3x capsaicin and 3x ginger.
  • Sinol Headache, a competing product, is $11.27 (including shipping) for a 15 ml bottle. It’s strength is listed as 4x capsaicin. It doesn’t contain ginger, which Ausanil does.

(I feel like a jerk telling you about a competing product after Dr. Chatterjee and his PR team were so kind and helpful. But, as a patient who has spent a lot of money on products that don’t work for me, I feel obligated to tell you about the less expensive option. The two products aren’t identical; you may find one works better than the other.)