When your doctor prescribes medication for an ailment or condition, you know it must be safe… to a certain extent.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves prescription medications when the benefits outweigh the risks, but both prescription meds and over-the-counter drugs can have side effects that range from irritating to serious to downright strange.
From minor discomforts like dizziness or fatigue to serious complications like shortness of breath or an increased risk for heart attack, side effects are unwanted, secondary reactions to a drug you are taking. In some cases, however, drug reactions can be serious and lead to disability, hospitalization, permanent damage, or even death.
Side effects can occur when you start a new medication, when you change the dosage of a certain drug, or even when you stop taking it. However, not everyone experiences side effects. Your age, weight, general health, supplement intake, and even genetics all come into play when you start taking medications, so it’s hard to predict what, if any, side effects you may have.
Side Effect or Adverse Drug Reaction?
You may have heard the terms “side effect” and “adverse reaction” used hand-in-hand, but the two are not the same. An adverse drug reaction is an unintended, harmful effect caused by a medication, while a side effect is an unwanted, but predictable, effect that occurs because of the drug therapy. While even those definitions sound like the same thing, they are vastly different.
What is a Side Effect?
A side effect is an expected effect that occurs when taking medication that differs from the original, desired effect the drug is meant to have. Side effects are studied during clinical trials for all medications and are documented so that the FDA can determine if new medications are safe for consumers.
It’s required that all drug manufacturers list all known potential side effects on the packaging for their products. This way, pharmacists, health care providers, and consumers alike are aware of all possible side effects when prescribing or taking medications. This also makes it easier for physicians to diagnose and offer solutions for unwanted side effects quickly.
Many unpleasant side effects will decrease over time, but ironically, some medications are prescribed BECAUSE of their side effects. A perfect example is Zyban (bupropion), which was originally created as an antidepressant. Zyban is now commonly prescribed to help people quit smoking as it is known to reduce cravings.
Propecia (finasteride) was originally used in 1992 to treat noncancerous enlargement of the prostate gland, but it was also found to regrow hair. Today, the product is used to treat male pattern baldness.
What is an Adverse Drug Reaction?
Unlike side effects, adverse drug reactions are unexpected reactions to a medication that cause harm when the drug is taken at normal doses and under normal circumstances. These types of reactions are unpredictable as they are unique to how the medication interacts with your body and other medications you may be taking.
Adverse reactions can range from mild to potentially life-threatening. For example, allergic reactions are a common form of an adverse drug reaction. When you have an allergic reaction to a medication, your symptoms might consist of a rash or hives (a minor adverse reaction) or could have a more severe reaction that requires immediate medical attention.
Maybe you’ve felt itchy after taking an antibiotic or felt a little queasy after popping a pill. These side effects are common enough, but adverse reactions are more serious. Any drug has the potential to cause an allergic reaction. In fact, allergic drug reactions account for 5 to 10% of all adverse drug reactions.
The most common symptoms of adverse drug reactions include cough, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and headaches. Skin rashes and itching are the most common allergic reactions to drugs. Anti-seizure drugs, ACE inhibitors, antibiotics, chemotherapy drugs, and anti-inflammatories have the highest instances of allergic drug reactions.
The Most Common Medication Side Effects
The top 11 prescribed medications and their side effects include:
- Jantoven (warfarin) is used to prevent blood clots and can cause serious internal bleeding. Other side effects are unusual bruising, nosebleeds, bleeding gums, heavier menstrual bleeding, pink or brown urine, red or black stools, vomiting of blood, and more serious side effects such as the death of skin tissue and purple toes syndrome.
- Vicodin (hydrocodone) is used to treat pain. Its most common side effects are lightheadedness, dizziness, sedation, nausea, and vomiting. Serious side effects include trouble breathing, impaired thinking, reduced physical abilities, and risk of becoming habit-forming.
- Zocor (simvastatin) is a statin designed to treat high cholesterol to reduce the risk of stroke or heart problems. The most common side effects are headache, diarrhea, abdominal pain, vomiting, nausea, and muscle damage.
- Microzide (hydrochlorothiazide) is a diuretic water pill that is often prescribed with other medications to treat high blood pressure. Side effects include low blood pressure, impotence, nausea, weakness, rash, electrolyte disturbance, and belly pain.
- Zestril (lisinopril) is a medication prescribed to treat high blood pressure and to prevent kidney failure caused by high blood pressure and diabetes. Its side effects include dizziness, nausea, headaches, drowsiness, and sexual dysfunction as well as a dry cough.
- Moxotag (amoxicillin) is a penicillin antibiotic used for treating bacterial infections. Common side effects include rash, nausea, itching, diarrhea, heartburn, vomiting, confusion, abdominal pain, and allergic reactions.
- Synthroid (levothyroxine) is a synthetic version of thyroid hormones. It can cause high levels of thyroid hormones, which can cause weight loss, headache, heat intolerance, excessive sweating, chest pain, increased heart rate, and nervousness.
- Lipitor (atorvastatin) treats high cholesterol and prevents stroke and heart attack, but it can also cause constipation, diarrhea, fatigue, gas, heartburn, and headache, as well as muscle pain and muscle break down.
- Z-Pak (azithromycin) is a common antibiotic for ear and sinus infections and is also used to treat pneumonia, bronchitis, and some sexually transmitted diseases. Common side effects include loose stools, nausea, stomach pain, and vomiting, but rare adverse reactions can include abnormal liver damage, allergic reactions, nervousness, and abnormal heartbeats.
- Norvasc (amlodipine) is a calcium channel blocker for high blood pressure and the prevention of chest pain. Side effects include swelling in the lower extremities, headache, dizziness, flushing, palpitations, and fatigue.
- Glucophage (metformin) is prescribed often for children and adults with type 2 diabetes. Side effects include gas, bloating, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and vomiting.
What to Do If You Have an Adverse Event
If the side effects of the drugs you are taking are disrupting your life, speak with your physician about alternatives or ways to lessen your discomfort. It’s also helpful to read the medication’s package insert which lists the known potential side effects, both mild and severe.
Sometimes, the package insert has helpful steps you can take if a serious adverse reaction occurs.
If you develop allergic reactions such as skin problems, swelling, or shortness of breath, stop taking the medication and go to the emergency room. The National Institutes of Health found that more than 700,000 patients annually go to the emergency room for drug-related adverse events.
Also, the FDA encourages consumers to report side effects and adverse reactions for both prescription drugs and OTC products. If you have an adverse event, you can report it by calling 1-800-FDA-1088 or through the FDA website.
Most importantly, speak with your family doctor and pharmacist about possible side effects so you are prepared and know what to look for and how to handle it.
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