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Side Effects Don't Have to Mean Risky Business

Sara Brodersen
Doctor of Pharmacy Candidate, 2002
Drake University

Annette sprained her ankle. She went to the doctor and received a prescription for ibuprofen to help with the swelling. Afterwards, she went to the pharmacy to get the prescription filled. Once she got home, she forgot how the pharmacist told her to take the medicine or if there were any side effects, and she hadn't asked any questions. So, Annette took her ibuprofen on an empty stomach with a glass of water. About an hour later, she began to have an upset stomach and didn't know why. What she did not know is that an upset stomach is a common side effect of an NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) such as ibuprofen, and it could have been avoided by taking the medicine with food or milk.

  • Have you ever had a side effect from a medicine and did not know what to do about it?
  • Have you ever stopped taking a medicine because of a side effect?

In a study conducted by the University of Kansas School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School, doctors were convinced that 90% of patients understood potential drug side effects, when in fact, only 57% of patients said they knew what side effects to expect1.1

It is not because patients do not want to know more about their side effects. A survey published in the Archives of Internal Medicine this past March reported that three out of every four people said they want to know more information concerning side effects of their prescription medicine.2

In other words, doctors are providing their patients with information on side effects, but many patients leave the office not fully understanding how to take their medicine or what to do if they have a side effect. This is the reason that you, as a patient, should take an active role in your health care by asking questions.

Take Annette for example. She did not ask questions about her medicine which resulted in an upset stomach and may have interfered with her schedule, diet, or daily life. Asking questions allows you to understand important information about your medicine such as recognizing side effects and understanding how to prevent or manage those side effects. By knowing this information, you will get the most benefit out of your medicine.

For instance, taking your high blood pressure medicine correctly will help lower your blood pressure. However, if you do not take enough of your high blood pressure medicine because you are bothered by side effects, you are not lowering it as much as you could and could be increasing your chances of having a heart attack or stroke. Being informed will allow you to take all of your medicine safely, with the fewest problems.

Ask Now and Don't Pay Later

The best advice is to be prepared before you leave your doctor's office or pharmacy by asking a few simple questions such as:

  • What types of side effects can I expect from this medicine?
  • Is there anything I can do to prevent or manage the side effects?
  • What should I do if they occur?
  • When should I call my doctor?

Doctors, pharmacists, and nurses expect you to ask questions about your treatment so they know you understand how to take the medicine as correctly and safely as possible.

If you think you may be having a side effect after starting a new medicine, ask yourself if the side effect is one your doctor or pharmacist discussed with you. Then, try one of the ways they taught you to control it. It is also a good idea to keep the information you received at the pharmacy and read it when you have a question.

If you still cannot manage the side effect or if it is a side effect that requires medical attention, call your doctor or pharmacist for suggestions. In some cases, a medicine may have to be changed if the side effects do not respond to simple measures. Usually, side effects can be managed if the appropriate steps are taken. Make sure to find out from your doctor or pharmacist what side effects you can manage at home and which side effects need your doctor's attention.

Keep a Side Effect Journal

Try keeping a side effect journal when you begin a new medicine and show it to your doctor and pharmacist. A journal provides valuable information to your doctor and pharmacist so they can decide if other steps need to be taken to treat the side effects, if the dose of your medicine needs to be adjusted, or if you need to be on a different medicine.

The following are types of items a journal entry should include:

  • Date and time of the side effect, such as July 12 at 8am. Make sure to write down every time a side effect occurs since some side effects will go away with time. It will also be helpful to state what time you took each of your medicines.
  • Side effect you experienced, such as dizziness, headache, or upset stomach and how severe the symptom was. Was it just annoying but you could still perform your daily activities, or was it so bad that you had to miss part of work that day?
  • All other possible causes of that symptom, such as missing a meal, hot weather, stress, foods high in fat, a medicine you bought without a prescription, or an herbal remedy.
  • Steps you took to manage the side effect, such as eating a light snack, sitting down to rest, drinking plenty of fluids, or taking some type of medicine.
  • If the steps worked or if you had to call your doctor or pharmacist for other suggestions.

Every medicine has side effects, but not everyone will experience a side effect. Therefore, it is impossible for doctors, pharmacists, and nurses to tell you how you will be affected, but they can tell you possible side effects of each medicine and give you simple steps to prevent them. So, if you take an active role in your health care team by asking questions, medicines no longer have to mean risky business.


1. Jaret, Peter. Ten Ways to Improve Patient Compliance. Hippocrates 2001 Feb/March; 15(2).

2. Ziegler, DK, MD, et al. How much Information About Adverse Effects of Medication Do Patients Want From Physicians? Archives of Internal Medicine 2001 March 12; 161:706-713.

© 2001 Consumer Health Information Corporation. All rights reserved.