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Say 'Aaah' | People's Pharmacy

Unknown Whether Ritalin's Cancerous Effect Extends to Humans


Question: I read in a newsletter that Ritalin caused cancer in mice. My daughter has been on this medicine for three years to treat attention deficit disorder. I am frightened about the risk of cancer, but without medication she can't focus in school. Is there anything safer?

Answer: A number of medications can cause cancer in animals. In most cases, the FDA has done nothing more than require a warning in the prescribing information. For Ritalin, the notice concludes that "the significance of these results to humans is unknown." No research shows whether Ritalin poses a risk of cancer for people.

Until this issue is resolved, you might want to ask your daughter's doctor about other possible approaches to treating ADD. Mixed amphetamines such as Adderall are not associated with cancers in laboratory animals.


Q: My mother can't remember what her doctor tells her about taking her medicines. She is a walking drugstore, taking Zocor for cholesterol, Prevacid and Tagamet for stomach acid, metoprolol and Coumadin for her heart, and Tylenol PM to get to sleep.

She read that grapefruit might interact with some medicines but can't remember which ones. She is more confused than ever and complains constantly about sore muscles.

A: Tagamet can sometimes cause confusion in older people, and metoprolol (Toprol-XL) might affect memory. The "PM" part of Tylenol PM might also contribute to confusion. And long-term use of acid-suppressing drugs such as Tagamet or Prevacid could lead to inadequate vitamin B-12 absorption, resulting in forgetfulness.

Grapefruit interacts with many medications, including cholesterol-lowering drugs like Zocor or Lipitor. It raises blood levels of these medicines and might increase the risk of side effects such as sore muscles.

As we age, liver and kidney function might not keep up with medication. Ask your mother's doctor to reevaluate her drugs and their doses.


Q: I've been reading criticisms of flu drugs in your column. Some people said doctors should not prescribe them over the telephone. Here's my story:

I was on a long-awaited ski trip in January when I came down with the flu. I felt like I had been hit by a truck and was sick in bed for a day.

As soon as I started feeling bad, I called my doctor, who prescribed Relenza and amantadine. The next day I was completely better and went cross-country skiing without any symptoms. My doctor's willingness to prescribe flu medicine over the phone saved my vacation.

A: We understand why doctors are reluctant to prescribe medicine without seeing a patient. Phone diagnosis is risky. But since flu medicines are effective only if taken within 24 to 48 hours of the first symptoms, this poses a dilemma for busy doctors, especially if a patient is far away.

Although the antiviral drugs amantadine and Relenza work on different principles to fight the flu, they have not been tested in combination. Your treatment was an experiment.


Q: Instead of taking an aspirin a day for the heart, does it make sense to take ground willow bark from the health food store? I worry about the side effects of aspirin.

A: Although willow bark contains salicylates--natural aspirin-like compounds--we don't think there is an advantage in using this medicinal plant.

Aspirin is available in several well-standardized doses, including 81 milligrams in an enteric-coated tablet designed to minimize stomach irritation. Doses of willow bark, like those of other herbs, might not be standardized. People who have had ulcers or are allergic to aspirin should avoid willow bark as well, since it is likely to trigger similar reactions.


Q: You offered a desperate parent advice regarding a daughter who came home from college complaining of foot odor. I read years ago that this problem can be caused by insufficient zinc in the system, and that zinc supplements have cured foot odor problems for many. It is probably worth a try.

A: You are not alone in suggesting this remedy for smelly feet. We heard from another reader: "Several members of my family had the same problem until they discovered that zinc will alleviate the odor. Whenever we hear of someone with this problem, we suggest to the offending party, 'Don't stink--take zinc!' Usually 50 to 100 milligrams per day will solve the problem in less than 30 days."

We caution readers not to exceed the high dose of 100 milligrams daily or the treatment period of 30 days. Otherwise zinc could reach toxic levels.

Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Teresa Graedon holds a doctorate in medical anthropology and is a nutrition expert. Their column runs every Monday. Send questions to People's Pharmacy, King Features Syndicate, 235 E. 45th St.,New York, NY 10017, or

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