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What Do Drug Side Effect Terms Mean? Part 5, Septicemia to Xerostemia

Decode drug label and medication guide language


No patient should ever be put at risk for a drug side effect or adverse event without understanding those potential dangers. Unfortunately, the prescribing information inserts, medication guides and package labels for prescription and over-the-counter drugs are filled with words and phrases that conceal more information then they reveal to anyone but those who speak "medicalese" fluently.

Pharmacists, student pharmacists, pharmacy technicians, doctors and nurses can often be just as lost as many patients when reading U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved drug information. As a small effort toward creating clarity, I offer this selected list of plain-English definitions for technical words and phrases used to name potential side effects and adverse events.

Earlier installments from this glossary appear at

You can also find the definition of any medical term by searching the online dictionary maintained by the National Library of Medicine.

Septicemia: Often called blood poisoning, septicemia develops when bacteria enters the bloodstream. Symptoms include the sudden onset of an extremely high fever and a racing heart. The infection spreads rapidly, and the blood-borne bacteria often enter a patient's bones, heart or brain. Intensive hospital treatment is required to prevent long-term health problems or death. Take any septicemia warning very seriously.

Sinusitis: This word literally means "swelling of the sinuses," which are the hollows behind people's cheekbones. Seasonal allergies, dug reactions, colds and flu all cause sinusitis, so most people recognize the condition as a nuisance more than a serious illness. If the swelling persists for months or becomes severe, however, the pain and irritation can get unbearable. Blockage of the nasal passages that restricts breathing is also a possibility.

Stomatitis: Often painful, and occasionally disgusting, stomatitis symptoms include swelling and ulcers of tissues in the mouth that can make eating, drinking and breathing uncomfortable and difficult. Usually caused by a bacterial or viral infection, stomatitis is often linked to weakening of the immune system, which is a common side effect from chemotherapy.

Syncope: Pronounced "sin-ka-pee," syncope describes fainting due to a temporary interruption of the flow of blood to the brain. As a drug side effect, syncope usually occurs when a medication significantly lowers a patient's blood pressure.

Tachycardia: Any period during which the heart beats faster than 100 times per minute is characterized as tachycardia. When the condition is caused by a medication, a racing heart indicates that electrical signals to the lower chambers of the heart -- the ventricles -- are not being transmitted or received normally. If the heart does not return to its normal rhythm, a person can lose consciousness or suffer a heart attack.

Teratogenicity: Drugs that cause abnormal fetal development are described as teratogenic. The best-known teratogenic medications are probably thalidomide (Thalomid from Celgene) and isotretinoin (e.g., Accutane from Roche). Importantly, many teratogenic drugs are present in sperm, so even men who take such medications must take extra precautions to prevent pregnancies.

Thrombocytopenia: A low number of platelets circulating in the blood is called thrombocytopenia. Platelets are red blood cell fragments that keep blood from becoming too thin, and they also play important roles in blood clotting and wound healing. Medications that affect bone marrow, particularly chemo drugs, are common causes of thrombocytopenia.

Thromboembolism: This is a piece of a blood clot that has come free and can potentially cause a stroke, heart attack or respiratory arrest.

Tinnitus: Tinnitus is a ringing in the ears. When the condition is not caused by prolonged exposure to loud, high-pitched noises or physical injury, it is a sign of another type of nerve damage.

Tumor Lysis Syndrome: When a cancer tumor dies, it can release all its constituent chemicals into the patient's bloodstream at once. "Smart" chemo drugs that specifically target cancer cells have a particular propensity for causing tumor lysis syndrome, which results in massive, nearly instantaneous electrolyte imbalances. Correcting for the sudden spikes in calcium, salt, potassium, phosphorus and other mineral concentrations requires rapid response by medical professionals.

Upper Respiratory Tract Infection: Any bacterial, fungal or viral infection of the ears, nose, sinuses, throat and pharynx (breathing tube; not the esophagus) is an upper respiratory tract infection.

Uticaria: Uticaria is a fancy name for hives, which is a sudden, itchy, usually red and bumpy rash. By itself, uticaria represents a mild to moderate allergic reaction. Hives can be the first sign of a more severe adverse reaction, however. Any associated difficulty with breathing requires immediate treatment, often with an epinephrine injection.

Vertigo: Feeling like you or the space around you is moving or spinning constitutes vertigo. Dizziness, loss of coordination and falling are common during an attack of vertigo.

Xerostemia : This is a combination of two Greek words that translates as "dry mouth." Severe dry mouth can make swallowing and speaking difficult.

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