A warning about potentially deadly diet pills

HOUSTON – Losing weight is a popular New Year's resolution. For some people, diet pills are a way to help things along, but the method comes with some warnings you should watch out for.

If you’ve ever taken diet pills at any time in your life for three months or longer, Houston Methodist Hospital warns you to be on the lookout for shortness of breath.

Feeling short of breath is the most common symptom of pulmonary hypertension, and if it's caught early, it can be treated. If not, it can be fatal.

Dr. Zeenat Safdar said she typically sees patients long after other doctors have ruled out heart problems, asthma and COPD. She’s the director of the Pulmonary Hypertension Center at Houston Methodist and said mostly women are at risk for the illness.

“Pulmonary hypertension is a fatal disease and we see that in the hospital, we see that in the clinic, patients who come to us already have advanced pulmonary hypertension. By the time they've been referred to us, they've been to three or four physicians already. They've had multiple hospitalizations, so it's a bad disease. It affects females, it affects younger childbearing potential or up to 50 to 60 years of age,” she said.

Diet pills are not the only thing to blame for pulmonary hypertension. There are other causes including illness and drug abuse.

“The use of drugs like Fen-Phen, or meth, or speed, or cocaine that's associated with developing pulmonary hypertension,” Safdar said.

The problem is, people who take diet pills don’t always know to be on the lookout for symptoms, or don’t know to disclose such pills to their doctor.

“To say I’m taking an herbal medicine and therefore it’s safe, is not true,” Safdar said. 

She said there’s also a misconception that Fen-Phen disappeared years ago.

“So females want to lose weight and they’re looking for something, so there are herbal Fen-Phen available, coming out of different other countries, other than U.S., that make it to U.S. market and you can get it from a vitamin store, or herbal market or some other over-the-counter medicines that have the same ingredient,” Safdar said.

Or at least ingredients that have the same effect on the vessels in your lungs.

“The end result is the same thing, the end result is that the vessels in the lungs become narrow and constrict, so that produces a hindrance to the flow of the blood so that when the blood cannot be oxygenated, cannot freely flow through the lungs, it can't make it to the rest of the body, so you don't get enough oxygenated blood in the brain, in the heart, in the liver, anywhere else, so that the patients need extra oxygen,” Safdar explained.

It takes many years to feel symptoms of pulmonary hypertension. So, if you feel short of breath and have a history of diet pills or drugs, it’s important to tell your doctor.

Safdar said if it is caught in time, and patients are put on proper medicine, then they can remarkably improve. Unfortunately, there is no way to cure the disease.