Medicines can make you feel better. Of course, they can also help maintain your health. However, it’s important to recognize all medicines (prescription and over-the-counter) have potential risks as well as benefits. Side effects (sometimes called adverse events or adverse drug events) could happen.
Side effects are undesired effects of a medicine that can occur even though the medicine is taken correctly at the right 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
Any medicine can cause any side effect in the right person. If you experience trouble breathing or swallowing after taking a medicine don’t take more. Go to the nearest emergency department immediately.
Allergic reactions occur when your body reacts in a bad way to a medicine. Reactions might include:
- Hives, itching or a rash
- Narrowing of the throat, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath
All medications have a risk of side effects. It’s important to weigh the risks and benefits when you make decisions about the medications you use.
A medicine you have taken for years can all of a sudden cause a side effect or serious reaction.
Information about potential risks and side effects comes with the medicines you take. You can find this in the Warnings section of an OTC medicine’s Drug Facts label on the packaging. Or, you can find it in the “package insert” or leaflet that comes with each prescription medicine. For credible online information about a specific drug’s side effects, visit the FDA’s Index to Drug-Specific Information. Importantly, ask your health professional about potential risks and side effects. That way you’ll know what to look 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 comes 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.
Learn more about lowering medication error
Additional educational resources
Learn more about lowering your risk of side effects
- FDA’s MedWatch Safety Information and Adverse Event Reporting Program
- Side effects, interactions, adherence & more: 10 terms to know for medication safety
- Navigating the OTC Drug Facts Label
- Navigating the medicine label of your Rx medicines