Poison control centers report increase in calls related to drugs used for weight loss

Patients receiving semaglutide prescriptions have increased 932% since 2019.

December 15, 2023, 1:57 PM

As the popularity of drugs used for weight loss has skyrocketed, so too have calls to poison control centers across the country, data shows.

Between January and November of this year, poison control centers in the United States reported receiving nearly 3,000 calls related to semaglutide. That number is 15 times as many semaglutide-related calls as the centers received in 2019, according to America’s Poison Centers, a nonprofit organization that represents the country's 55 poison centers.

The numbers don’t pinpoint what led to the calls. Poison centers may receive calls for various reasons, including patients with questions about side effects or concerns about taking their medications earlier than usual, experts say.

“Sometimes we'll have people who call just for answers to their questions," Dr. Joseph Lambson, director of the New Mexico Poison and Drug Information Center, told "Good Morning America." "So, they want to know what the side effects might be.”

Semaglutide is the active ingredient in Ozempic, Wegovy and Rybelsus.

Ozempic and Rybelsus are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat Type 2 diabetes, but some doctors prescribe the medications "off-label" for weight loss, which the FDA permits. Wegovy is FDA-approved for weight loss.

PHOTO: This image shows the anti-diabetic medication "Ozempic" (semaglutide) made by Danish pharmaceutical company "Novo Nordisk".
This image shows the anti-diabetic medication "Ozempic" (semaglutide) made by Danish pharmaceutical company "Novo Nordisk".
Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images

Over the past four years, the percentage of patients receiving a prescription for semaglutide has increased over 930%, a surge driven largely by the drug's use in helping patients lose weight, according to data from Epic Research shared with ABC News.

Lambson said the rise in semaglutide-related calls to poison control centers is due in part to the increased use of the drug: "As a drug becomes more and more used in the community, inevitably, people will accidentally take it incorrectly or have side effects from it."

Charles McPherson, an Ozempic user, told "GMA" that he went to the emergency room after taking the wrong dose of the medication.

"I didn't feel well, like I had the flu or something," McPherson said of his symptoms. "I still didn't feel well for a couple days, so I went into the emergency room."

Lambson said dosing errors are another reason for the increase in calls to poison centers, but added that those errors typically come from patients who are using compounded versions of semaglutide.

"The manufactured product comes in a pen that has pre-filled doses, and so it's less likely for patients to give the wrong dose, since the pen is formulated to give the exact dose that a patient needs," Lambson said. "Whereas a lot of the compounded formulations that have been reported to us at poison centers, they're dispensed in vials with needles and syringes, and it's up to the patients to draw out the correct amount of medication to administer to themselves, and this is where we've seen a lot of the errors."

Ozempic, Wegovy and Rybelsus require a prescription and are not sold over the counter. Without health insurance coverage, the medications can cost over $1,000 per month, a high cost that has led some people to turn to compounding pharmacies to get less-expensive doses of semaglutide.

Compound pharmacies create their own semaglutide compounds using the raw ingredients. Some medical experts say there are risks associated with going that route because the compounds can be altered during the process, and it's also not clear in many cases where the ingredient drugs are sourced.

In June, the FDA warned consumers that off-brand forms of Ozempic and Wegovy could be unsafe.

PHOTO: The diabetes medicine Ozempic in a pharmacy in The Netherlands, on Nov. 10, 2022.
The diabetes medicine Ozempic in a pharmacy in The Netherlands, on Nov. 10, 2022.
Hollandse Hoogte/Shutterstock

Later that same month, Novo Nordisk, the pharmaceutical company that makes Ozempic, Wegovy and Rybelsus, announced it was taking legal action against certain medical spas, weight loss or wellness clinics, and compounding pharmacies for "the unlawful marketing and sales of non-FDA approved counterfeit and compounded semaglutide products claiming to contain semaglutide." The suit included allegations of false advertising, trademark infringement, and unlawful sales of non-FDA-approved compounded products.

Dr. Stephanie Widmer, a medical toxicologist, said that people who take an incorrect dosage of semaglutide would be more likely to experience "adverse effects" of the drug.

"If you do take too much of it, you're definitely more likely to experience more of these adverse effects, like the nausea, the vomiting, GI symptoms, and abdominal pain," Widmer told "GMA."

When taken in their correct dosage, side effects of drugs like Ozempic, Wegovy and Rybelsus can include severe nausea and constipation.

Novo Nordisk told "GMA" in a statement that it works with the FDA to "continuously monitor the safety profile" of medicines including Ozempic, Wegovy and Rybelsus.

"Novo Nordisk is the only company in the U.S. with FDA-approved products containing semaglutide, identified under the trade names Wegovy®, Ozempic®, and RYBELSUS®, and should only be prescribed after a close consultation between a healthcare provider and a patient and should only be taken under the supervision of a healthcare provider," the company said in a statement. "Novo Nordisk stands behind the safety and efficacy of our FDA-approved semaglutide medicines when used as indicated and when taken under the care of a licensed healthcare professional."

The company also said it cannot "validate the safety or effectiveness of compounded products" with semaglutide that are not Novo Nordisk-branded products.

"Novo Nordisk does not directly or indirectly provide or sell bulk semaglutide to compounding pharmacies or any other entity for the purposes of compounding semaglutide products," the statement continued. "Medical spas, weight loss or medical clinics, and compounding pharmacies that are claiming to offer or sell compounded products claiming to contain ‘semaglutide’ are sourcing their ingredients from entities other than Novo Nordisk."

For poisoning-related questions, or if you need emergency assistance, you can contact Poison Help at 1-800-222-122, or visit PoisonHelp.org.