Master Your Medicine: How to Ease Your Worries About Side Effects

Afraid of medication side effects? You have options.

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Medical treatments and medicines save lives, prevent disease, and keep people out of the hospital, but they can also cause unwanted side effects.

Hearing about potential side effects may make you nervous and cause you to not want to take your medication. You may be afraid to take your prescribed medicine because:

  • You’re afraid of the side effects your doctor told you could happen

  • You’ve taken the medicine before and felt sick from it

  • You took a similar medicine and had a bad reaction

  • Or you’re concerned from a family member’s experience with a similar drug.

Remember: “Medicines affect each person differently,” says Preeti Parikh, MD, chief medical editor at HealthiNation and pediatrician at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. The side effects your friend or mom felt on a particular medicine may not be what you’ll feel. Your age, weight, sex, medical history, and other medicines you are taking can affect your chances of experiencing a side effect.

If you decide you no longer want to take your medicine, don’t stop taking it until you talk to your doctor. Your doctor has prescribed this medication because he or she believes the benefits outweigh the side effect risks, and stopping suddenly may be dangerous.

The good news? You have options. You might not have to experience the side effects of your medicine. Here’s what you can do:

TIP #1: Ask your doctor about all potential side effects.

When you’re at the doctor’s office, ask the following questions about your medications before you head home:

  • What are the common side effects this medicine might cause?

  • How can I manage mild side effects so I can keep taking the medicine?

  • Are there any serious side effects this medicine might cause? If so, what are the early warning signs so I can get help?

  • What interactions should I know about?

  • When should I call the doctor?

“When you’re visiting your doctor and you’re being prescribed a medication, or reviewing the medications that you’re on, it’s important to write everything down,” says Dr. Parikh.

TIP #2: Talk to your pharmacist.

Talk to your pharmacist about any concerns you may have and ask for a patient handout.

“Ask your pharmacist if there’s anything you can do to limit the side effects, such as eating before taking the medication [to] prevent an upset stomach,” says Punkaj Khanna, PharmD, a pharmacist based in New York City. Make sure to also ask about interactions, such as whether not you can drink alcohol while taking your medicine.

Read about the side effects information while you’re at the pharmacy (in case it sparks any more questions) and reread it when you get the medicine refilled in case there are any changes.

TIP #3: Keep a side effects diary.

“One of the best things you can do when talking to your doctor about your medicine is to come prepared with a diary or journal,” says Dr. Parikh. “You should be keeping track of what you’re experiencing or feeling when taking the medication.”

After reviewing your journal with your doctor, write down the date and the steps your doctor told you to take. Did it help? Did it not help? Did you experience any additional side effects? This information will be helpful during your next doctor visit.

TIP #4: Talk to your doctor about how the medicine is affecting your life.

If your medicine is significantly affecting the quality of your life, tell your doctor. You may have options to switch up your medications or routine. Your doctor may suggest:

  • Taking a different medication altogether

  • Trying a different dose

  • Modifying the timing of your medications

  • Using other medications to counter side effects

  • Or adopting healthy lifestyle changes.

“Side effects are a big deal, and talking to your doctor about them is important,” says Dr. Parikh. “Remember: You, your doctor, and your pharmacist are a team, and [together] we need to find the best medication for you.”