Continuous or repeated or administration of a drug is often accompanied by a gradual diminution of the effect it produces. Tolerance is said to have been acquired when it becomes necessary to increase the dose of a drug to get an effect previously obtained with a smaller dose, i.e. reduced sensitivity. By contrast, the term tachyphylaxis describes the phenomenon of progressive lessening of effect (refractoriness) in response to frequently administered doses (see Receptors, p. 91); it tends to develop more rapidly than tolerance.

Tolerance is readily observed with opioids, as witness the huge doses of morphine that may necessary to maintain pain relief in terminal care; the effect is due to reduced pharmacological efficacy (p. 94) at receptor sites or to down-regulation of receptors. Tolerance is acquired rapidly with nitrates used to prevent angina, possibly mediated by the generation of oxygen free radicals from nitric oxide; it can be avoided by removing transdermal nitrate patches for 4—8 h, e.g. at night, to allow the plasma concentration to fall.

Increased metabolism as a result of enzyme induction (see p. 113) also leads to tolerance, as experience shows with alcohol, taken regularly as opposed to sporadically. There is commonly cross-tolerance between drugs of similar structure.

Failure of certain individuals to respond to normal doses of a drug, e.g. resistance to warfarin, vitamin D, may be said to constitute a form of natural tolerance (see Pharmacogenetics p. 122).

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