Medications play a critical role in the treatment of various health issues, from the occasional skin rash to chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease. While their therapeutic effects can greatly improve a person’s health and quality of life, all medications carry a balance of risks and benefits.
Learning more about a medication’s potential side effects is an important step to take as you discuss treatment options with your provider. To support you in making informed decisions about your health, we’ve compiled helpful information about side effects.
What are side effects?
Side effects are reactions you experience when taking a medication that are unrelated to the medication’s therapeutic purpose and the condition it has been prescribed to treat. They range from mild discomforts like drowsiness and nausea to potentially serious complications.
Below are several examples of common mild side effects and some of the medications that may cause them. This isn’t a comprehensive list, and many other medications may cause these side effects. There are also other common side effects to watch for. Your provider or pharmacist can tell you what is most relevant to your treatment plan.
Drowsiness: antihistamines, tricyclic antidepressants, and beta-blockers
Nausea: some types of antibiotics such as cephalosporins, fluoroquinolones, and macrolides; some types of antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs); over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil®, Motrin®) and aspirin; iron supplements; and HIV medications
Dizziness: some types of antidepressants, particularly tricyclic antidepressants and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs); some anti-seizure medications such as gabapentin (Neurontin®), lacosamide (Vimpat®), and lamotrigine (Lamictal®); some types of blood pressure-lowering medications such as angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs) and calcium channel blockers (CCBs)
Irritated skin is a common side effect of many topical treatments such as hydrocortisone cream.
More serious side effects, also referred to as an adverse drug reaction, include:
Severe skin rashes from anti-seizure medications such as carbamazepine (Tegretol®)
Lactic acidosis from the oral diabetes medication metformin - this is an uncommon but serious condition in which an accumulation of lactic acid in the body leads to imbalanced pH levels
Internal bleeding from the anticoagulant warfarin (Coumadin®, Jantoven®)
What factors influence side effects?
Each person’s response to a medication is unique, and individual experiences of side effects vary widely. This means that while you should always educate yourself and prepare for your medication’s side effects, there is no guarantee that you will experience them, even if they are known and common. And if a friend or family member had a negative experience with one medication, your body may respond very differently.
Individual health factors that can influence side effects include:
Other underlying health conditions
Other medications, vitamins, and supplements you take
Some side effects tend to develop only when a medication is mixed with specific foods and drinks or other medications. This is called a medication interaction. Many interactions can be avoided by asking your doctor or pharmacist about the best way to take your medication and informing them of other medications you take.
Sometimes there is a correlation between medication dosage and the extent of side effects, with a higher dose typically accompanied by a more pronounced reaction. However, some side effects can develop at any dose or strength.
Some side effects may be directly related to how a medication works in the body. These usually cannot be prevented. As an example, in blocking the body’s release of certain chemicals to relieve allergy symptoms, antihistamines also cause drowsiness.
When are side effects most likely to occur?
If you are taking medication on an ongoing basis to manage or prevent a health issue, side effects are most likely to develop:
Right at the start of treatment
If your dosage changes
When you stop taking the medication
Keep in mind that many mild side effects experienced at the start of treatment typically resolve on their own as your body adjusts to the medication. For instance, many people who initially experience dizziness or drowsiness from taking an SSRI for depression find that these symptoms improve with time.
Preventing and managing side effects
Communicate with your care team
Minimizing your experience of side effects starts before you begin taking a medication. Since individual health factors can affect your response to a medication, give your provider as much information about your health as possible. This way they can recommend the best treatment option for your needs.
Inform them of your full medical history, including:
All current and past diagnoses
Any known allergies
Past experience with medications
All medications you currently take, including prescription and over-the-counter medications, vitamins, and supplements
Seeing a new doctor? Many patient intake forms give you the space to elaborate on known reactions to medications.
Learn more about your medication
You don’t have to be caught off guard by side effects. You have a very valuable resource in your pharmacist and prescribing physician, not to mention the package inserts and printed materials that come with prescription medications. (Over-the-counter treatments often include a “Drug Facts” label.) Also, look for any stickers on a prescription bottle, which typically call out more serious side effects.
It’s worth taking time to speak with your pharmacist or doctor about your specific circumstances. A medication’s printed materials are comprehensive, and your care team can specify which side effects you’re most likely to experience and what to watch for.
Educating yourself doesn't just help you prepare for the most common side effects — you might even learn how to avoid them altogether. Ask your pharmacist or doctor about the best way to take your medication and if there’s anything you can do to prevent known discomforts. If a medication causes nausea, they may suggest taking it with food.
Take your medication exactly as prescribed
You have more control over some side effects than others, like those caused by mixing a medication with a specific food or drink. Learning the best way to take your medication and following your pharmacist or doctor’s directions may help you avoid certain discomforts.
Taking a medication as prescribed also means staying on track with routine testing and clinical monitoring, which helps prevent more serious health complications. As a few examples, certain blood pressure medications require ongoing monitoring of kidney function, and lithium and thyroid medication also require labs and monitoring.
Share any side effects with your provider
As you adjust to your medication, log any side effects you experience and tell your provider about them. Remember that they may get better over time. In other cases, your doctor may recommend changing how you’re taking a medication or modifying your treatment plan. Here are some ways your doctor may suggest addressing ongoing side effects:
Changing dosage or timing: Some medication side effects may improve by taking it at a specific time of day. If your medication causes dizziness, your doctor may recommend taking it right before bedtime to minimize the impact of this side effect. Lowering the dose may also help reduce side effects.
Adding another medication: Your doctor may prescribe another medication to treat a specific side effect, such as an anti-nausea medication for nausea.
Switching to an alternative medication: You may have a better experience with another medication. Ask your doctor about your options. Remember, a bad reaction to one medication doesn’t mean you’ll react similarly to an alternative, even one from the same class.
Never stop taking a medication without first consulting your physician. Even if side effects are uncomfortable, abruptly stopping the use of a medication can be harmful to your health. Your doctor will guide you in safely tapering off of your medication.
What if side effects persist?
Nearly every medication has some possibility of side effects. Each person’s treatment needs are different. The discomfort of side effects may be worth taking a medication that provides effective treatment for a serious condition. On the other hand, if side effects really interfere with day-to-day life, you may be better served by an alternative. There rarely is one “right” answer. You and your provider can work together to determine what’s best for you.
The pharmacy care you deserve
Our expert pharmacists can answer any questions you have about medication side effects, interactions, or release right in the Alto app. We also offer same-day delivery and medication management tools like reminders and auto refills to help you stay on track with treatment.
Reach out any time through secure in-app messaging or by phone at 1-800-874-5881.
This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in January 2021 and has been updated for accuracy and completeness.