A team of scientists from the University of Manchester have used Twitter to reveal that insomnia and weight gain are the more common, less serious side effects of prednisolone — a commonly used steroid drug.




The scientists, under the leadership of Professor Will Dixon, used a computer programme to automatically pick up on tweets containing the drug name and terms that could be identified as possible side-effects. The programme then translated colloquial terminology into medical ones — such as ‘can’t sleep’ into ‘insomnia’.

Through this software, more than 150,000 tweets were identified to contain prednisolone over a period of three years. Out of these, about 20,000 were found to include a potential side effect of the treatment: 1,737 mentioned insomnia, 1,656 mentioned weight gain.

“Though Insomnia and weight gain were the two most commonly discussed side-effects, they are not usually highlighted by clinicians when prescribing prednisolone,” said Dr Rikesh Patel, a member of the research team. “Part of this is down to a lack of research investigating patient experience with their medications. We believe social media such as Twitter can be used to broaden knowledge about drugs and potential side-effects that patients themselves find troublesome. And this type of automatic extraction is an efficient way of getting this information, because we’re dealing with large volumes of data.”

“Our view is that social media sources such as Twitter can be useful because they can illustrate which drug side-effects patients discuss most commonly, even if they are not necessarily the most serious,” Dixon added. “Less serious side-effects are often missed in other research because patients may not mention their symptoms to their doctors, or they are not recorded in medical records. Yet this is despite them being troublesome.

“This form of research is clearly just one piece of the jigsaw, but it nevertheless is an important one. In this example, it helps re-focus our research into steroid-related side effects that are clearly important to patients.

“Social media posts may also give us a future view of how side effects impact on patients’ quality of life.”


What side effects of #prednisolone do patients discuss on Twitter ? @_Rikesh reports in @Nature_NPJ DigitalMedicine that #insomnia and #weightgain are most frequently discussed. Yet there is very limited research into these important side effectshttps://t.co/gdUbve59MV

— Will Dixon (@WGDixon) February 12, 2018

Will Dixon tweet