The word placebo derived from the Latin “placere”. It defines a drug that has no active pharmacological ingredient. Thus, it is merely a placebo based on starch or other inert fillers. Externally, however, the placebo preparation resembles a real drug. While ordinary placebos are pharmaceutically completely ineffective, they are sometimes referred to as active placebos. These are real drugs, but administered in ineffective dosages or with no efficacy whatsoever on the clinical picture at hand.
Patients who have been given a placebo are of course not aware of this, but assume that they have received a genuine drug. Placebos are also frequently used for psychosomatic illnesses in which the symptoms are psychological and not physical in origin. The peculiarity here is that patients report not only desirable but also undesirable side effects. This is due to the fact that a subject’s basic attitude can have a significant influence on the effect of a drug, even if it has no effect at all.
Placebos are used both in the treatment of diseases and in the testing of new drugs. Before administering a placebo, the physician’s task is to ensure that the patient’s complaints do not require life-threatening or treatment-necessary drug therapy.