By Jen Singer
Recent studies have suggested some surprising things (not beaming from the center of our solar system) that might increase your risk for skin cancer. We delved into the research on several of these, which we are sharing in a series of articles here. The first looked at drinking white wine. This one looks at commonly prescribed medications and whether you should be concerned — or not.
Blood Pressure Medication
Are you among the millions of people who take hydrochlorothiazide to treat high blood pressure? A recent study by researchers at the University of Southern Denmark showed a connection between this medication and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), the second most common type of skin cancer.
Hydrochlorothiazide is the generic name for diuretics (sometimes called “water pills”) that help your body get rid of extra salt and water to help lower those blood pressure numbers. Some brand names include Esidrix, Hydrodiuril and Microzide. Some multi-ingredient anti-hypertensive medications, such as Aldactazide, Dyazide, Maxzide and Moduretic, may also include hydrochlorothiazide.
What’s important is how long a patient takes the diuretic. The study of 80,000 cases of skin cancer in Denmark found that the longer a person took the medication, the higher the risk was for developing SCC — up to seven times greater than if never taking the drug at all. Plus, the scientists concluded that eliminating the use of hydrochlorothiazide could have prevented one in 10 cases of SCC in Denmark.
“True carcinogenic effects of prescription drugs are very rare, and we were surprised to learn that hydrochlorothiazide constitutes a risk factor in its own right for this particular cancer,” says Anton Pottegård, PhD, associate professor of clinical pharmacology and pharmacy at the University of Southern Denmark.
What does this mean for you? If you take hydrochlorothiazide, discuss the study’s results with your physician at your next checkup, particularly if you’ve been previously diagnosed with skin cancer or have other risk factors for it, such as fair skin, light hair, blue, green or gray eyes or a history of substantial sun exposure. There may be an alternative treatment for your hypertension. “This side effect to hydrochlorothiazide use needs to be weighed against the fact that it is a generally very well-tolerated, cheap and efficient drug,” says Dr. Pottegård. “We stress that patients should not discontinue their treatment without consulting their physician.”
Erectile Dysfunction Drugs
If you’re one of the 25 million men who have been prescribed sildenafil (known by the brand name Viagra) for erectile dysfunction, you may want to know about a potential association with melanoma. And remember that “association” doesn’t necessarily mean “cause.”
A 2014 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine concluded that a group of men who took Viagra were later diagnosed with melanoma more often than the group of men who did not take the drug. Of the study’s nearly 30,000 men who had never used Viagra, 128 later developed melanoma. But 14 of the roughly 1,600 Viagra users did. In “absolute risk,” this is a small increase of .43 percent, and yet the media reported the “relative risk” of 84 percent, which, of course, sounds scary. (Read our review of these medical research terms in the intro to our white wine article.)
If that’s not confusing enough, a previous study claimed that Viagra might protect men against melanoma. One thing’s clear: If you’re concerned about your risk of melanoma, talk to your dermatologist.
Jen Singer is a health writer based near New York City.