Metformin: Top Side Effects of the Popular Diabetes Medication

Metformin Molecular Structure

The prescription medication metformin has been around since the late 1950s, but it wasn’t approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration until 1994. Since that time, it has quickly become one of the most popular treatments for type 2 diabetes. In 2010 alone, there were 48.3 million prescriptions written for the drug.

Metformin is an ideal treatment for type 2 diabetics for several reasons:

  • Lowers the amount of glucose that is absorbed from food
  • Minimizes the amount of glucose produced by the liver
  • Increases insulin sensitivity
  • Does not cause low blood sugar
  • Does not cause weight gain
  • Lowers triglycerides
  • Protects the cardiovascular system
  • Eliminated quickly by the kidneys

With all of these benefits, it’s important to keep in mind that metformin isn’t without its shortfalls. One of the most common side effects is gastrointestinal problems, which includes diarrhea, bloating, gas, and stomach pain. Many patients find that these unpleasant side effects go away as their bodies get used to the medication. One study showed that 20 to 30 percent of patients experience gastrointestinal issues, but only 5 percent of those have to stop taking metformin.

To combat these side effects, doctors will start patients on a low dose—usually 250-500 miligrams per day. Sometimes, they’ll even prescribe an extended-release tablet that is easier on the stomach. Patients can also try taking the medication with food or milk.

Other common, but rarely serious, side effects include:

  • Cough
  • Headache
  • Drowsiness
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • B12 deficiency

Be sure to speak with your  physician if you think you are experiencing any of these side effects due to your metformin treatment.

Metformin does pose one serious side effect: lactic acidosis. This condition occurs when acid builds up in the blood. Although it is extremely rare, patients with the condition need immediate medical attention. Symptoms usually come on quickly—abdominal pain, diarrhea, fast breathing, muscle pain, weakness, and general discomfort.

Diabetics with any of these criteria are more likely to develop lactic acidosis and should consider an alternative diabetic treatment:

  • Impaired kidney, heart, or liver function
  • Over 80 years old
  • Taking a metformin dosage of more than 2 grams per day

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