Do You Know the Two Kinds of Drug Side Effects?

Medication is meant to make you feel better, but any time you take something—whether it’s over the counter or prescription—you run the risk of experiencing a side effect. While negative side effects from medications should be taken very seriously (some can actually be life-threatening), stopping your medication altogether without talking to your doctor could have a harmful long-term effect on your health. In fact, it’s estimated that more than 125,000 Americans die each year due to not taking medications as prescribed.

It’s important to communicate with your doctor or pharmacist about any negative side effects you’re experiencing. By doing so, your health care team can determine how to adjust your dosage or medication to cut down on the side effects while still treating your health issue. That said, there are two main types of side effects that pharmacists and medical professionals are concerned with. Knowing which category your side effect falls under can help you figure out the next step.

  1. Common side effects: Antibiotics, blood pressure and over-the-counter medications can sometimes cause symptoms like an upset stomach, dizziness, drowsiness, restlessness, heartburn, stomach cramps or vomiting.
    What to do: If you experience these side effects, first ensure that you’re properly following the medication’s directions and dosage. If you are, talk to your doctor or your pharmacists about your concerns. Always contact a professional with any questions as a first step.
  1. Alarming side effects: Some medications could cause allergic reactions, skin rashes, blurred/changing vision, seizures, problems breathing, swelling or shortness of breath. Additionally, some antidepressants and other drugs (like Chantix, which is used for smoking cessation) can cause patients to have thoughts of suicide or causing harm to others.
    What to do: If you experience any alarming side effects that you think might be life threatening or could cause you to do harm to yourself, call 911 or go to an emergency center. You should also talk to your doctor as soon as possible. Once your health care team is aware of the side effects you are experiencing, adjustments can be made to your medications.

If you’re curious about the potential side effects of a medication, talk to your pharmacist. Additionally, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tracks side effects for all prescription drugs. The FDA advises patients to carefully read the drug label and packaging. They also have an online tool where consumers can learn more about their medications. Both medical professionals and consumers are encouraged to fill out a MedWatch form whenever there is an unexpected side effect so that the FDA can investigate and better communicate the side effects of prescription drugs.

For more information on how to accurately take your medications and communicate with your doctor, visit these blogs on this site as well as A Healthier Michigan:

About the author: Laurie Wesolowicz is director II of Pharmacy Services Clinical at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. Her clinical expertise includes formulary development, specialty pharmacy initiatives, physician and pharmacist pay-for-performance incentives, medication safety and clinical utilization management operations, including pharmacy-related fraud and abuse. She’s been an adjunct clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan since 1995, and she serves as the director of the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and University of Michigan Postgraduate Year One Managed Care Pharmacy Residency program.

Photo credit: Frankie Leon

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