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A pill that treats a symptom is not a cure

Ninety years ago, Scottish researcher Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin by accident. He returned after a vacation to find a strange mould growing in a culture plate he had failed to properly clean two weeks before.

There is no underestimating the importance of this discovery. The development of antibiotics has saved us from such life-threatening bacterial illnesses as endocarditis (infection of the heart and heart lining), meningitis, pneumococcal pneumonia, and many more.

Today, we tend to think there’s a pill to be had for whatever ails us. But unlike an antibiotic to treat infection, many of the medications that stock our medicine cabinets, either off-the-shelf or by prescription, are only meant to treat a symptom.

Always ask, why?

Let’s be clear about that – a symptom, not the underlying problem that is causing the symptom.
A recent article in Chatelaine, “Medicine cabinet must-haves,” provided a “pharmacist-approved guide to the drugstore’s best remedies,” from cough and cold, to aches and pains, diarrhea, cuts and burns, and dealing with heartburn or warts.

In many instances, the issues these must-haves treat fall into the category of “symptoms.” Which should prompt you to ask yourself “why am I suffering this symptom in the first place?” We all have the odd complaint now and again, but chronic issues with things like pain, heartburn, or bowel regularity invariably point to a deeper problem. Sure, a pill may provide some immediate relief, but it’s not getting to the root cause.

It’s like when you get a flat tire – how long do you drive around with that odd-sized little spare on the car before getting the proper tire repaired? Or finding a drip under your sink – how long do you use a bucket to catch it before just getting the pipe fixed?

The problems with relying on the ‘Band-aid solution’

First, you are not getting to the root cause. It may be fairly benign, or it may not be, and failing to identify and tackle the real problem may be putting your long-term health, even your life, at risk.

Second, many of those “medicine cabinet must-haves” do carry the risk of side effects with prolonged and/or excessive use. Many types of pain killer, for example, can be hard on the stomach and liver, or raise the risk of heart attack or stroke.

In fact, just this week, results of a rigorous five-year study involving about 12,500 people were presented at a European medical conference. The study looked at whether taking a low-dose aspirin every day really does reduce the risk of a first heart attack or stroke. The answer is likely no. One study leader concluded that “If you’re healthy, it’s probably not worth taking it.”

The study also looked at the benefits of aspirin for adult sufferers of either type of diabetes. It found that the potential benefits are minor enough that they are outweighed by the potential side effects.

In both cases, the percentage of study participants who suffered typical aspirin side effects – stomach or intestinal bleeding, nosebleeds, indigestion, acid reflux, belly pain – cancelled out the percentage who may have seen some benefit.

It’s all about lifestyle

Which leads back to a point we’ve made several times before – living a healthy lifestyle of regular exercise and clean, nutritional eating is a much better way to ensure you age well than popping pills.

With whatever ails you, always consider whether that pill is treating root cause (such as an antibiotic for an infection) or only symptoms (such as reducing fever/inflammation/pain caused by that infection while the antibiotic does its work).

Don’t be fooled by the daily blast of product marketing messages and media stories that try to convince you that treating a symptom alone is some kind of cure.

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