Prescription drugs heal us when we’re sick, relieve our pain when we’re in pain, and prevent or control long-term medical conditions. But sometimes, even when they do their job, they come with unwanted side effects.
Don’t let this automatically exclude you from a drug, especially if it’s an important part of treating a medical condition. But you shouldn’t simply accept unpleasant reactions.
Side effects can occur with almost any drug, says Jim Owen, MD and vice president of practical and scientific affairs at the American Pharmacists Association. They’re common in everything from birth control pills to cancer-fighting chemotherapy drugs.
For example, many prescription drugs cause stomach problems like nausea, diarrhea, or constipation because they pass through your digestive system.
Others — like antidepressants, muscle relaxants, or blood pressure or diabetes medications — can cause dizziness. Some can make you feel sleepy, depressed, or irritable. Some can cause weight gain. Some can interfere with your sleep or your ability (or desire) to have sex.
“I tell my patients that chronic symptoms are unacceptable,” says Lisa Liu, MD, primary care physician at Gottleib Memorial Hospital in Melrose Park, IL. “I will not allow them to have any ongoing pain or discomfort unless we have tried all alternatives.”
When your doctor prescribes a new drug, ask about common side effects.
“You, your doctor, and your pharmacist should work together so everyone has the same information,” says Owen. “You should know which side effects are serious, which will go away on their own, and which can be prevented.”
When you start taking any medicine, tell your doctor or pharmacist about any unexpected symptoms as soon as possible. This includes changes in your sex life, Liu says, which many patients feel embarrassed or afraid to talk about.
Some side effects go away over time as your body adjusts to a new medication, so your doctor may recommend sticking with your current plan a little longer. In other cases, you may be able to lower your dose, try a different drug, or use a different drug, e.g. Add an anti-nausea medication, for example, to your routine.
“People often think that just because they respond badly to one drug, they can’t take other drugs in the same class, but that’s not always the case,” says Liu. “Sometimes side effects are due to very specific ingredients that not every brand uses.”
Changing the time of day you take your medicine may also help, if your doctor gives you permission. “For example, if someone takes four blood pressure medications, I tell them not to take them all at once,” says Liu. “For patients whose birth control pills or antidepressants make them dizzy, I have them take them right before bed.”
If you speak to your doctor, have a list of any other medications or supplements you’re taking – both prescription and over-the-counter. Sometimes side effects are caused by two or more drugs reacting negatively together, Owen says, and you may not need both.
Remember that a new symptom may actually be a drug side effect. If you don’t tell your doctor the full story, they may diagnose you with a different condition — and prescribe a different drug to treat it.
“There are many factors that lead to side effects — not just the drug itself,” says Owen. “You may be able to prevent them by avoiding alcohol, avoiding certain foods, or making other small changes to your diet or lifestyle.”
For example, if you’re taking an antidepressant that helps you feel better but also causes you to gain weight, you may need to pay more attention to your diet and exercise plan.
Some medications, like cholesterol medications and blood thinners, may not work as well if you eat grapefruit or foods high in vitamin K. Other medications can make you sun sensitive, so wear sunscreen or cover up outside.
It is wise to do your own research about your medicine. Read the label and any directions that come with your prescription. Talk to other people who have similar health concerns. And look for reliable sources on the Internet.
If you read or hear about another drug that may have fewer side effects, ask your doctor or pharmacist about it. The side effects of newer drugs may not be as well known as those on the market for years, so you may be asking about switching to an older, more proven drug.
But never stop any medication or change your dosage without your doctor’s approval — especially if you’re being treated for a serious medical condition. You need to take some medicines, like antibiotics, for a full course to avoid getting sick again. Others don’t work as well if you skip a dose, cut it in half, or take it with or without food.
You may be able to tolerate some side effects, especially if they are temporary or if the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. But if a bad drug reaction puts you at risk for further medical problems or is seriously affecting your health, it may be time for a change.
Drugs that cause dizziness, for example, can increase your risk of death or serious injury from falls—especially if you’re an older adult. And treatments that affect your ability to enjoy time with friends or romantic partners may not be your best option when alternatives are available.
“Sometimes it takes a bit of trial and error,” says Liu, “but often you can find a drug that works without compromising quality of life.”