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How Worried Should I Be About Side Effects? ... I'm Terrified

Julie Kenkel, Drug Information Clerkship 2000
and Doctor of Pharmacy Candidate, 2001
Drake University

Many people want to know detailed information about the prescription medicines they are taking. This can lead to some interesting questions.

  • Does this additional information help or hinder your medication use?
  • Does the rambling list of side effects tacked on the end of a television ad scare you away from the medication?
  • And in the end, how do side effects influence your health?

Consider the directions and "possible" side effects for a medicine used to treat osteoporosis (thinning or weakening of the bones). This medicine can build stronger bones and prevent broken bones, but it also has a unique set of instructions. They are:

"Take one tablet every morning with a full glass (8 ounces) of plain water. Do not sit or lie down (remain standing or sitting upright) for at least 30 minutes and until after your first meal of the day."

The directions sound different from other medicines you have taken. So, how important is it to follow them? Before you make up your mind, you decide to read through the information you were given.

You read the "possible" side effects - an upset stomach or an irritated throat. They may be annoying, but they do not have to stop you from taking the medicine.

You read further and begin to get a little nervous. The medicine may cause bone pain and ulcers in your esophagus (the tube connecting the throat to the stomach). You start to wonder if you want to risk taking this medication. It has such unusual instructions and several scary side effects. Before you make up your mind, you need to know the reasons behind some of this information and that following the instructions can help you avoid some of the side effects.

Remember the instructions to take with water and remain standing for 30 minutes? By following them, you can help decrease the chance of the medicine getting stuck on the side of your esophagus or stomach.

  • By taking with a full glass of water, the medicine can move easier down the esophagus and through the stomach.
  • By standing or sitting upright, gravity will help the medicine pass through your stomach faster.
  • By waiting at least 30 minutes before eating, the medicine will not be affected by food.

Therefore, the medication will spend less time in your throat, esophagus, and stomach. You will decrease the chance of having sores and bleeding simply by following the directions.

Not all side effects are harmful. Some are actually beneficial. They tell you that your medicine is working. In this case, mild bone pain is a sign that your body is building stronger bones.

As a patient and consumer, you can play an active role in your health care by knowing about your medicines. It is very important to read the information that is given to you by your health care providers. Keep in mind, you can always talk to your physician, pharmacist, or health care provider if you have any questions or concerns.

So, how concerned should you be about the side effects of your medications? When it comes to side effects, remember to ask questions and get answers. Understanding which side effects may be harmful, which ones are merely undesirable, and which ones are actually beneficial is important. There is a reason for the side effects mentioned in television ads. They let you know what may happen - you should not immediately dismiss them. But, once you understand the reasons behind instructions and the "possible" side effects, there is no need to be terrified of prescription medicines. They are still a vital step on the road to better health.

© 2001 Consumer Health Information Corporation. All rights reserved.