Every medication you encounter, whether it's bought over the counter or prescribed by a doctor, comes with a list of side effects. To some, the possibility of feeling worse from taking a medicine, which is supposed to make them feel better, can be a cause for concern.
What are side effects?
Side effects, also called adverse events, are ailments which occur when taking a drug. In most cases, the benefits of the medicine greatly outweigh the possible side effects.
The list of side effects can sometimes be long and daunting, listing anything from a minor headache to a life altering condition. It's important to understand that side effects are not guaranteed and you may or may not experience them.
Europe settled on a selection of phrases which separates various side effects according to how common they are experienced. The side effects are split into 5 groups:
- Very common (affects more than 10% of patients)
- Common (affects between 1-10% of patients)
- Uncommon (affects between 0.1-1% of patients)
- Rare (affects between 0.01-0.1% of patients)
- Very rare (affects less than 0.01% of patients)
This scale was approved in 1999 in an effort to make the information less ambiguous.
If you are worried about any side effects listed on your medicine, speak to your doctor or pharmacist. In many cases, the side effects are mild are manageable.
What can I do if I experience side effects?
Very common and common side effects are often mild and usually disappear on their own. These side effects can include a headache, nausea or tiredness. If you are at all concerned about any of the side effects, ask a doctor or pharmacist for advice.
If you experience any serious side effects, you should report them to your doctor immediately. In certain circumstances, your doctor may need to change your dosage or change the medication you are taking. You should not change the dose or cease taking the treatment without consent from the doctor.
You can also report your side effect to the Yellow Card Scheme. By reporting your side effects to the Yellow Card Scheme, you can contribute to the research which looks into the safety of medication.
Everyone responds differently to medicine and some people may experience an allergic reaction. Signs of an allergic reaction include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Inflammation of the face, lips, tongue and throat
- Severe rash
If you begin to experience an allergic reaction, seek emergency medical attention.
Can I treat my side effects?
It is possible to treat side effects, however this may involve taking more medicine and increase the risk of interactions between the two treatments. While the patient information leaflet, enclosed with your medicine, may indicate whether it's safe to take the medicine with another, it is better to err on the side of caution and to contact your doctor or a pharmacist before treating a side effect with further medication, to avoid potentially dangerous drug interactions.
Sometimes, a side effect can be counteracted with a small and temporary change in your lifestyle, such as avoiding certain foods and drinks during your treatment. These changes may or may not be mentioned in the patient information leaflet. But they are often the best way to combat side effects without risking the efficacy of the medicine you are taking.
For more information on making lifestyle changes during treatment, consult your doctor.
Common side effects and how to treat them
Headaches are a common side effect of a lot of different medicines. In most cases, this side effects subsides as your body becomes accustomed to the medicine.
It may be suitable to take over the counter painkillers, such as paracetamol, to treat the headache. Speak to your doctor or pharmacist to make sure it is suitable to do so.
Some medicine can make you feel dizzy. If you feel dizzy after taking your medicine, it is strongly advised to avoid driving or operating machinery until you feel well again.
Try lying down until the dizzy spell disappears. When you get up from a sitting or lying position, move slowly to avoid making your dizziness worse.
Make sure you drink plenty of water and avoid coffee and alcohol, which can exacerbate this symptom.
If your dizziness lasts for a prolonged period, or becomes worse, speak to your doctor as soon as possible.
Nausea is a feeling of sickness and can make you feel very uncomfortable. If the medicine can be taken with food, consider taking future doses after a small meal.
Changing your eating habits can help curb a stomach ache. Avoid food rich in saturated fats, refined sugars or spices. You can also try eating smaller meals or breaking your meals up into lighter snacks throughout the day. Bland food, such as wholemeal toast, crackers and foods high in fibre may help too.
Peppermint tea is a popular natural remedy for an upset stomach.
Dry mouth is very common and easily treatable without medicine.
To treat dry mouth, increase your intake of water by drinking regularly throughout the day.
You can also try chewing sugar-free gum or sweets to promote salivation.
Avoid alcohol and caffeine as these can cause you to feel dehydrated.
You should also avoid grapefruit juice to quench your thirst. Grapefruit juice is infamous for interacting with certain medicines, such as statins, and resulting in undesired and sometimes dangerous effects.
Tiredness is another side effect which may go away as your body adjusts to the medicine.
If you feel tired after taking your medicine, especially if your daytime is affected, speak to your doctor to check whether it is possible to take your medicine near bedtime. This will prevent the side effects from affecting you during the daytime.
If you feel drowsy, avoid driving or operating machinery until you feel alert again.
Sensitivity to sunlight
Some medicines cause an increased sensitivity to sunlight, increasing your risk of getting sunburn or blisters.
To prevent this risk, avoid the sun if you can. If you cannot evade the sun, consider wearing long trousers and long sleeve shirts. Your doctor may suggest applying sunscreen before going out.
What else can you do?
You can speak to your doctor about alternative medicines and formulations. Your doctor may be able to suggest a syrup or effervescent instead of an oral tablet, or an entirely different medicine altogether. A lower dose may also be prescribed if they believe it would reduce your chances of side effects while also remaining effective at treating your condition.
If a side effect is causing you a lot of discomfort, contact your doctor as soon as possible.