Medication side effects: How bad is too bad?

Prescription drug advertisements have become commonplace in today’s society. They’re in your favorite magazines and interrupting your treasured television shows. While many come with catchy taglines or memorable visuals, it’s often the long list of possible side effects that get the most attention. The risks range from discomfort to, sometimes, death. As consumers, how can you tell when the possible side effects are too risky? We asked Jasmine Coatie, PharmD, to share her thoughts on the topic.
Are all medications safe?

In order for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve a drug for sale in the United States, it must be considered safe. This means that the benefits must be greater than the risks.

What is a side effect?

An unwanted or unexpected event or reaction to a drug. Both prescription drugs and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs can have side effects. Side effects can vary from very benign things, such as an upset stomach, to more serious complications, such as severe allergic reactions.

Why do some people experience side effects, and others don’t?

A lot of factors can affect whether you experience side effects. These include:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Allergies
  • How the body absorbs a drug
  • Other drugs you’re taking
  • Vitamins and dietary supplements
When are we most likely to experience a side effect?

Out with the old. If you’ve been taking a drug for a long period of time and suddenly stop, this could cause you to experience side effects

In with the new. Starting any new drug, dietary supplement or vitamin can cause side effects as your body adjusts to the new medication

Mixing things up. Increasing or decreasing doses can potentially cause a person to experience side effects of that medication.

What are the most common side effects?

Examples of common side effects include:

  • Upset stomach
  • Dry mouth
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Weight loss
  • Weight gain
  • Headache
  • Drowsiness

While these are annoying, they are not considered life-threatening. If any of these common symptoms get to the point where they are significantly affecting your quality of life, you can always contact your doctor.

More serious side effects.

Some side effects are more than just annoying and can potentially be life-threatening. It is important to be aware of these side effects so you can seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Some of these more severe side effects include:

  • Abnormal heart rhythms
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Internal bleeding with blood thinning medications (e.g. Warfarin (Coumadin®, Xarelto® and Eliquis®), blood in the urine or stool, or vomiting blood
  • Allergic reactions, including difficulty breathing, hives and swelling of the lips or face
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Hives

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