Medication Side Effects -
How Can You Protect Yourself?
Yen Hua, Pharm.D.
Friday evening and you have just picked up your medicine at
your local pharmacy. You decide to look at some of the information
provided to you about your medicine. Included in the information
is a list of side effects. Like most people, you probably wonder
if any of these side effects will affect you. Some of these
side effects may sound mild and some may sound more severe,
but how would you know for sure? What would you do if you started
to experience some of these side effects? When should you be
Almost everyone has been
on an antibiotic before to treat infections caused by bacteria.
You may have been told or you may have read that the antibiotic
could cause stomach upset. In most cases, this would not make
you have to stop taking your medicine. On the other hand, some
people taking antibiotics can develop severe watery diarrhea
which can make them dehydrated. Antibiotics, like many other
medicines, may cause different side effects in different people.
Not everyone will react the same way. There is no way to predict
which person will develop a side effect when a medicine is prescribed.
This is why it is important for you as a patient to know the
potential side effects of your medicines and how to manage them.
What does this mean for
you? It means that you, the patient, have a lot of control over
the medicine you are taking. This means that you also have an
important role in protecting yourself from side effects. Here
are several helpful things you can do:
- Be aware of all the medicines you
are taking and their possible side effects. This includes
non-prescription medicines, nutritional supplements, and herbal
products. It may help to keep a written list of your medicines.
- Be aware of the warning signs of side
effects that relate to the medicines you are taking. For example,
if you are taking an NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory
drug) such as ibuprofen for relief of pain, you may be aware
that these medicines can cause mild stomach upset. On the
other hand, they also have the potential to cause dangerous
"silent" bleeding in the stomach. Sometimes you may not know
that this is happening because you may not feel any pain.
In this case, it is important for you to know that a warning
sign of this more severe side effect is black, tarry stools.
- Know what you should do if you get
a side effect and if there are any tips on managing it. For
example, if you have a mild stomach upset from an NSAID, you
may want to ask your doctor or pharmacist about taking your
medicine with food or milk. The food or milk will coat the
inside of the stomach and help protect it.
- Know when to call for help if you
think you might be having a side effect that is unusual or
severe. That way early warning signs can be caught before
they become serious.
- Try to take your medicine exactly
as directed. If you find you are having trouble taking your
medicine as directed, discuss it with your doctor or pharmacist.
- Let your doctor and pharmacist know
if you have had any problems with any medicines in the past
or any medicines you are currently taking. For example, some
blood pressure medicines may cause orthostatic hypotension.
This is when your blood pressure drops when you suddenly sit
or stand up. Some of the symptoms are lightheadedness, dizziness,
and weakness. Your doctor or pharmacist can suggest some helpful
tips such as getting up slowly, especially when you are getting
out of bed in the morning. It may also help to avoid hot environments
such as hot baths or showers because you could faint and hurt
yourself. Let your doctor and pharmacist know if you have
symptoms. You can help prevent side effects by catching problems
early. Writing down your problems will help you to remember.
- If possible, get your medicines filled
at the same pharmacy so that your pharmacist can keep a complete
record of your medicines. Your pharmacist can check for drug
interactions every time you get a prescription filled. Be
sure to let your pharmacist know if you are taking any non-prescription
or herbal remedies. Your pharmacist can also help you if you
have any other concerns or questions.
Let's go back to the antibiotic
case above. By asking your doctor or pharmacist what you can
do if you get a mild upset stomach, you can help keep this side
effect to a minimum. By finding out if your antibiotic can cause
severe diarrhea, you will know it is important to call your
doctor if this happens to you. You can protect yourself from
severe complications by knowing the side effects of your medicines
and what you can do if they happen to you.
You are in the best position
to make your medicines work for you. At the same time you can
prevent or manage side effects by being an informed patient.
You can keep informed by bringing up your questions and concerns
about side effects with your doctor or pharmacist. If you are
uncertain about the side effects and early warning signs of
your medicines, be sure to ask your doctor or pharmacist. Remember,
the more you know about your medicines, the more you can do
to ensure that they are safe and effective.
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