Minimize medicine risks: lower the risks of side effects

Medicines can make you feel better and help you maintain your health. However, it's important to recognize that all medicines, both prescription and over-the-counter, have potential risks as well as benefits: unwanted or unexpected side effects (also sometimes called adverse events, or adverse drug events) could happen to you when you use medicines. The risks are as varied as the medicines we take.

Side effects are undesired effects of a medicine that can occur even though the medicine is being taken correctly at the recommended dose. These might include:

  • Headache, dizziness, constipation or an upset stomach, which are all common side effects
  • Liver failure or heart problems, which can be rare but serious side effects

Allergic reactions occur when your body’s defense system reacts in a bad way to a medicine. Such reactions might include:

  • Hives, itching or a rash
  • Narrowing of the throat, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath

Information about potential risks and side effects comes with each of the medicines you take: in the Warnings section of an OTC medicine’s Drug Facts label on the packaging, and in the printed “package insert” or leaflet that comes with each prescription medicine. For credible online information about your specific drug’s side effects or safety concerns, visit the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s Index to Drug-Specific Information. Importantly, ask your health professional questions about potential risks and side effects so you know what to be on the lookout for when starting a new medication.

Tips to lower the risks of medication side effects 

Side effects are not entirely avoidable, but you can help prevent them. If you are taking medicines to treat a serious or life threatening condition, you may be willing to accept a medication with more side effects. If you are treating a more minor condition, you might decide you are willing to accept less risk. Some specific ways to lower the risks of drug side effects include:

  • Talk to your healthcare provider about what side effects to look out for, and what to do if you experience one of them.
  • Read the information that come printed on your medicine labels so that you are aware of the side effects associated with your medicines and know what to be on the lookout for.
  • Ask if there are ways to prevent or manage drug side effects—like taking a medicine with food, or at bedtime.
  • Ask whether you can drink alcohol when using the medicine, as combining alcohol with certain medicines can be dangerous.
  • Make sure your healthcare providers are aware of any allergies you have.
  • Contact your healthcare professional if you experience any side effects.  Your healthcare providers will want to know about any side effects, and can work with you to either manage the side effects or can advise you if a switch to an alternative medication is needed.