When your doctor reaches for his prescription pad, possibly the most important question you can ask is the age of the drug he's about to prescribe you. If it's brand-new, as Nancy Reagan once put it, just say no.
Embarking on any sort of drug therapy requires that you become a medical detective. For more information on why you need to adopt this approach, get hold of a copy of WDDTY's Secrets of the Drugs Industry from these offices.
* The first, and most important, question to ask your GP is: How long has this drug been licensed? If the answer is less than five years, your suspicions should be aroused. The chances are that not enough data have been collated to prove the safety of the drug he's prescribing. You are, in effect, part of the trial that determines its safety.
* Ask for one of the older, better tested drugs. Your best bet is the least copy-cat drug with the fewest new chemical twists added or modified dosages.
* If your drug is one of that handful of products that are genuinely innovative, weigh up the benefits and risks. Your tough decision about whether or not to take the drug should be swayed by the state of your health, the seriousness of your illness and also whether there's an available non-drug alternative. Chances are, there is.
* Be your own drug detective. Every drug marketed in the UK has a datasheet, which is essentially a profile of the drug at a glance, listing when it should or shouldn't be taken as well as its side-effects. These datasheets are bound up in one volume, The Medicines Compendium (previously The Data Sheet Compendium; Wallingford: Pharmaceutical Press, 2001; lb95 plus p&p).
* Keep a diary of your symptoms if you decide to begin a course of drugs. If you become an insomniac, or have dizzy spells, suspect the drug if you've not had these symptoms before - even if your symptoms aren't listed in The Medicines Compendium. The reporting of drug side-effects and adverse reactions is so poor that it's likely that your symptoms won't be listed anywhere.
* Ask your doctor to check out potential reactions of the new drug with other drugs you're taking. It's nothing short of astonishing how little doctors know about drug interactions, even though the information is readily available. If in doubt, order the American drugs 'bible' Physicians' Desk Reference (Medical Economics Staff, 2001; $83.95)
* Check our website to see if others have also suffered the same side-effect. The WDDTY website (www.wddty.co.uk) has been revamped and we have created our own drug side-effect reporting system so that you can find out if others have experienced the same problems. Although it's only just underway, and so may not be up-and-running at the time of publication, report your side-effect to us and see what others have said about the same drug.
* Consider drugs the last, not first, port of call. Most chronic conditions - such as asthma, arthritis, eczema and high blood pressure - can be treated more effectively with other proven nutritional or alternative remedies. Unless you become persuaded that your condition will definitely worsen, why risk introducing a substance that could also trigger off a whole new set of problems?