We’ve heard a lot about Ozempic recently. But while most conversations about the drug surround its popularity among celebrities as a weight loss secret, the reality is, Ozempic and Wegovy are prescribed to treat diabetes — they were not created to be the vanity potion they’re being viewed as thanks to the celebrity hype.

Because of the way we’ve begun to think about Ozempic and its affiliated drugs on a cultural level, it seems as though people have stopped viewing it as a medication, thereby failing to consider the risks that come with it. That can be dangerous — especially in light of new findings about a complication linked to taking the medication.

woman with stomach problems

First things first: Why are Ozempic and Wegovy typically prescribed?

Ozempic and Wegovy are prescribed to help control blood sugar in people with diabetes, according to Mayo Clinic. Along with diet and exercise, it can help people with obesity lose weight. Mounjaro is another drug in this class, but unlike the other two drugs, this one has an FDA indication for weight loss in patients with obesity.

So what’s the downside?

These drugs are contraindicated for people who are pregnant or trying to conceive, as some animal studies have shown adverse effects on fetal growth and development (though this effect may not hold up in humans).

But there may be risks for people who are not pregnant or trying to conceive as well. 

When we interviewed Staci Tanouye, MD, an OBGYN, about this restriction, here’s what she had to say about the risks of taking Ozempic and the like: “The side effects most people are concerned about are the GI side effects. So nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea,” says Dr. Tanouye. “Some people can manage this quite well and do fine with it, while others have significant GI effects. Those are the primary ones that cause people to stop the medication or make it difficult for others to use.”

So yes, those potential side effects are real…but up until now, they’ve seemed relatively low-stakes. But a new bit of research points to a more serious complication.

woman holding out her jeans to indicate weight loss

Ozempic and stomach issues

Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates that these drugs may cause rare but severe stomach problems such as gastroparesis, pancreatitis, or bowel obstructions. 

To come to this finding, researchers used a random sample of 16 million patients from a database. Based on their review, they found that people on these medications, known as GLP-1 receptor agonists, may be at increased risk for these complications — though the complications still appeared to be rare.

“Given the wide use of these drugs, these adverse events, although rare, must be considered by patients who are contemplating using the drugs for weight loss because the risk-benefit calculus for this group might differ from that of those who use them for diabetes,” the study’s authors write. “Limitations include that although all GLP-1 agonist users had a record for obesity without diabetes, whether GLP-1 agonists were all used for weight loss is uncertain.”

There have been other reports of stomach issues tied to these drugs.

This isn’t the first indication that these drugs may come with some serious side effects. NBC News shared the experiences of real people who have taken these drugs, and they underscored that these side effects can be really serious. One person whose story was featured was prescribed Ozempic to control type 2 diabetes but ended up vomiting uncontrollably. 

In August, a woman sued Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly, the makers of Ozempic and Wegovy, after she was severely injured after using the medications. The woman suffered gastroparesis (which happens when normal muscle movement in the stomach is affected, causing the stomach to not empty properly), and gastroenteritis (which is inflammation of the stomach and intestines).

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Does that mean no one should be taking GLP-1 agonists?

No. Medications come with potential side effects — ultimately, it’s a matter of weighing the benefits against the risks. For people who can benefit from Ozempic or Wegovy, especially those with diabetes, those benefits may outweigh the risks.

But these findings challenge us to think about these drugs as what they are, which is medication, instead of speaking about them so casually, as we’ve begun to do thanks to the abundance of off-label use we’ve been witnessing. If these drugs do come with significant risks, does it make sense for people to turn to them merely for their ability to make people (who don’t actually need the medication for health reasons) thinner? 

Ultimately, deciding whether the benefits outweigh the risks is a decision you can only make with your doctor, who can break down the risks and help you determine what’s best for your body.

Zara Hanawalt is a freelance journalist and mom of twins. She's written for outlets like Parents, Marie-Claire, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Motherly, and many others. In her (admittedly limited!) free time, she enjoys cooking, reading, trying new restaurants, and traveling with her family.