How to deal with side effects of medication

Before you skip a dose or stop taking your medication, read this.

There’s no denying that prescription medications can work wonders. They help fight off infections, lower blood pressure, ease pain, and so much more. While their intended benefits can vary, medications have 1 thing in common: the potential for side effects.

Side effects of medication are unwanted or unexpected reactions to a medication. In some cases, side effects are truly helpful. For example, some birth control pills can help clear up acne. And metformin, a diabetes medication, has been shown to help lower breast cancer risk. 

Many other side effects — dizziness, nausea, drowsiness, diarrhea — you’d rather do without. These and other negative side effects are common reasons that people stop taking medication. About 29% of Americans who stopped taking their prescription medication without telling their doctor blamed the side effects. 

But skipping doses or stopping a medication without your doctor’s input can cause major problems. Research shows that 50% of treatment failures and 25% of hospital visits happen because people weren’t correctly taking their medications. Stopping a round of antibiotics too soon could mean your infection doesn’t get better, for example. It could even encourage the growth of bacteria that’s resistant to antibiotics.

Suddenly quitting medications can also cause withdrawal symptoms. These are physical or mental reactions that happen after stopping or reducing a medicine. For example, stopping an antidepressant abruptly can cause you to have trouble sleeping. You may feel dizzy, anxious, or paranoid. You could also face a relapse in depression.

For all these reasons, it’s important to talk to your doctor about any side effects you’re having — before you change your medication routine. There’s a good chance they can improve your situation, says Michael Steinman, MD. Dr. Steinman is a professor of medicine in the geriatrics division at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine.

“Some people make the mistake of suffering in silence,” Dr. Steinman says. “Don’t be one of them! If you have concerns, make sure to speak up.” If you notice any new symptom, ask your doctor if it could be a medication side effect. It may not be. But asking can help find those times when it is, Dr. Steinman says. Here are some of the ways to safely ease your side effects. 

Smart solutions for medication side effects

Sometimes a few lifestyle changes are enough to make you feel better. Your doctor can also try several steps to ease your side effects while still treating your original condition. Ask them about:

  • Giving it time. Starting a new medication or changing the dosage of a current medication might cause short-term side effects. These may clear up in a few days or weeks as your body gets used to it, Dr. Steinman says. If the symptoms are mild, think about waiting it out. If they are still lingering a month or 2 later, talk to your doctor. A big exception: If your side effects are severe or dangerous, such as suicidal thoughts or an abnormal heartbeat, don’t wait — tell your doctor right away.
  • Changing or tweaking your medication. Say you’re having side effects from 1 brand of medication. That doesn’t mean you’ll have the same reaction to a different medication that can treat the same condition. Your doctor may also be able to lower or raise the dose. Or they may suggest taking it at different times of the day. Taking medication before a meal instead of after, or first thing in the morning instead of before bed, may change your response to it, Dr. Steinman says.
  • Interactions with other medications. Not all medications play nicely together. That goes for prescription medications, supplements, and over-the-counter (OTC) medications. So keep an updated list of all the medications you take, even OTC ones. Make sure your doctor has that information too. Before you stop taking a medication or start taking anything new, go over the list together.
  • Changing your diet. Are your side effects kicking in at certain times of the day or after eating certain foods? Take note. There can be reactions between some medications and foods. For example, you don’t want to wash down a statin (cholesterol medication) with grapefruit juice. It can cause muscle pain. The juice blocks the enzymes in your body that help clear out the medication, causing an overdose effect. Eating healthier and exercising can also help reduce some conditions such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure, Dr. Steinman says. These conditions may be why you’re taking medications in the first place.
  • Skipping alcohol. Some medications don’t interact well with alcohol. Those that treat the common cold, anxiety, high blood pressure, and allergies are on that list. Combined with alcohol, they can cause symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, drowsiness, headaches, and fainting.  

The bottom line

Sure, everyone misses a dose once in a while. But it’s wise not to make it a habit. Remember: The best treatment outcomes happen when people correctly take their medication at least 80% of the time. 

So when it comes to dealing with side effects, the most important thing to do is work with your doctor. They can help you find a way to make taking your medication more pleasant. You can also connect with your care advocate through a digital health management app like Wellframe. Many health plans offer these smartphone apps as a free benefit to help members get answers and personalized support. 

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