After taking Ozempic for three years, Dawn Gentle was diagnosed with pancreatitis, a rare but possible side effect of the medication.
“I did lose a bit of weight and my levels did drop to normal levels – that part was great. What I was not told by my doctor at the time was the long-lasting side effects that would change my life,” she told Healthline.
In 2021, Gentle rushed to the emergency room due to extreme abdominal pain. After several tests, she was diagnosed with pancreatitis, a condition that is defined by inflammation of the pancreas.
The pancreas is an organ that secretes enzymes that help with digestion. It also produces and releases insulin, which helps your cells uptake glucose from the bloodstream.
Pancreatitis is a possible side effect of all medicines that fall into glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) receptor agonists, not just Ozempic, explained Dr. Rekha B. Kumar, associate professor of medicine at Cornell and Chief Medical Officer at Found.
“It is rare and more common in patients with other risk factors for pancreatitis – prior history of pancreatitis, high triglycerides, high alcohol intake, or other genetic predispositions to pancreatitis,” Kumar told Healthline.
While there are reports and hypothetical plausibility with increased levels of amylase and lipase, Dr. Karl Nadolsky, endocrinologist and diplomate at the American Board of Obesity Medicine, said, “The actual incidence of pancreatitis in randomized controlled trials is very low and not statistically suggestive of causality.”
The reason GLP-1 receptor agonists can cause pancreatitis is because the medications stimulate the pancreas to make insulin, “so in an already inflamed organ, this might tip someone over the edge,” said Kumar.
“I found out about this side effect after I was rushed to the emergency room at the hospital. The doctor asked me about the medications that I was taking for my diabetes. When I informed him about taking Ozempic, he said to ‘stop taking that drug right away.’ It had caused my pancreatitis,” she said.
She stayed in the hospital for a week as healthcare providers worked to get her pain under control.
Since her diagnosis, she has also undergone four endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) procedures. An ERCP combines upper gastrointestinal (GI) endoscopy and x-rays to aid with diagnosis and certain treatments.
While Gentle underwent tests for the abdominal pain she was experiencing, she received more difficult news. Not only did she have pancreatitis, but doctors discovered a cancerous tumor at the end of her pancreas.
“When I asked the doctor if it was also caused by taking Ozempic, he was nice enough to inform me that it was strongly possible,” she said.
However, Kumar said research so far does not prove that GLP-1 medicines cause pancreatic cancer.
“This is a correlation and not a causation. This has been well studied,” she said.
Ozempic states that in rodents, semaglutide ( the generic name for Ozempic) causes thyroid C-cell tumors. However, it is unknown whether it causes thyroid C-cell tumors, including medullary thyroid carcinoma (MTC), in humans as the human relevance of semaglutide-induced rodent thyroid C-cell tumors has not been determined.
Nadolsky pointed out that rodents have more thyroid c-cells and GLP-1 receptors on them than humans.
“Hence, why [GLP-1 medicines] are not recommended in those with personal or family history of medullary thyroid cancer or MENT 2a/b),” he said. “This has not panned out in humans with only a recent nested case-control study suggesting a risk of medullary and other thyroid cancers, but didn’t control for specific and important risk factors like personal or family history of thyroid cancer.”
While current research shows that these types of medications do not cause pancreatic carcinoma (PC), some researchers are asking for more research to be done to make definitive conclusions.
For instance, a 2022
Due to Gentle’s experience, she regrets taking Ozempic to help manage her type 2 diabetes.
“If I knew what the side effects were and how severe [they could be], I would have never gone on it,” she said.
Although Gentle’s case is rare, there are a range of side effects to consider before taking Ozempic.
“People should weigh the risks [versus] benefits, as well as risk of side effects of all medicines with the guidance of their physician prior to taking any prescription or non-prescription medication. Ozempic is no exception,” said Kumar.
In rare cases like Gentle’s, Ozempic may cause serious side effects. In addition to pancreatitis, the following are possible side effects:
- Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)
- Allergic reaction
- Diabetic retinopathy (an eye condition that can cause vision loss)
- Kidney complications
- Gallbladder disease
“There is a statistically significant, but again very low absolute risk, of gallbladder disease which also happens with significant weight loss via other interventions,” said Nadolsky.
He pointed to a
Ozempic may also cause the following mild side effects:
- Burping, gas, upset stomach, or acid reflux
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Mild increase in heart rate
- Nausea or vomiting
- Stomach pain
- Taste changes or loss of appetite
- Reactions to the injection site, including redness, discoloration, or discomfort
“Patients should report all side effects to their physician to determine if it is serious and if the medication needs to be stopped,” said Kumar.
Ways to manage non-serious side effects might include lowering the dose or not increasing the dose as per the usual escalation schedule, she said.
“There might be times where the benefit of a medicine outweighs the risk and transiently treating the side effect with an antacid or antiemetic might make sense on a case-by-case basis,” said Kumar.
Nadolsky agreed. He said overall, the cardiometabolic benefits of weight loss, glycemic control, cardiovascular benefits and renal benefits that GLP-1 medicines can provide outweigh the risks in patients with obesity, “and especially in those with obesity and more severe as measured by complications such as type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and cardiorenal disease.”