How Should You Handle Disturbing Side Effects?

Side effects may occur with any new treatment, including new medications, placement of a new medical device, surgery, or even physical or occupational therapy. We usually think of side effects when we begin to experience bad changes—when the treatment introduces new worrisome symptoms or problems. Many treatments have some sort of side effect associated with them.

Troublesome side effects shouldn’t be taken lightly, for a number of reasons. At their most extreme, side effects can cause harmful and even potentially fatal treatment reactions. Even somewhat mild side effects like a dry mouth, sleepiness, or minor muscle aches may still interfere with your daily life. Sometimes side effects bother some people so much that they skip doses or give up a treatment altogether, which can derail care and put them at risk for both short- and long-term complications.

Before treatment begins, here are a few questions you can discuss with your health care team:

  • What are the common side effects of this treatment?
  • Are there any serious side effects that I should be aware of?
  • When would any side effects start? Are they likely to get stronger or weaken over time?
  • Can I do anything to prevent these side effects?
  • Are there other treatments I can take that don’t carry these side effects?
  • How might this treatment interact with any of my other treatments? 
  • Do I need any tests to detect “silent” side effects?
  • Who should I notify if I experience unusual or unexpected side effects?

When Should You Tell Your Doctor about a Side Effect?

Not sure if it’s a side effect that your health care provider should hear about?  Here are some signs to consider:

  • Your daily life is noticeably disrupted by the side effects.
  • Your symptoms seem to be getting worse. Others around you are expressing concerns about changes they see in you.
  • Past experience with treatments leads you to think this treatment is exceptionally difficult or troublesome.
  • You are thinking of stopping treatment because of side effects.

Where Can You Learn about a Drug’s Potential Side Effects?

Each prescription drug must be sold with full information on its known side effects. You can find this full list in many places: stapled to the outside of your pharmacy bag, included in the drug packaging, or on a Web site related to the drug, or the Physician’s Desk Reference ( available at many libraries and online at  Pharmacists are also able to answer questions when they fill or refill prescriptions.

Side effects can be listed in a number of ways:

  • Contraindications, or the conditions under which you should not take a medication.
  • Warnings, which usually describe the most serious and life-threatening side effects.
  • Precautions describe situations such as driving or certain groups of patients such as pregnant women that may be affected in some particular way by the medicine.
  • Adverse Reactions describe all side effects reported during the medication’s clinical trials.

One of the newest ways to learn about side effects from your treatment is from other patients with the same condition, such as through online communities like or These sites draw information from participating patients with certain conditions ranging from multiple sclerosis to HIV/AIDS. Individuals share reports on their health status, their treatments and their side effects over time. While these community reports can be useful, the information on them should always be verified using other trusted sources, such as your doctor.

See Manage Your Medications for more resources on medication side effects.

Resources reviewed June 2013.

Managing Your Medications
Here are several resources and websites for understanding your medications, avoiding adverse drug interactions and advice for remembering to take medication as prescribed.
Handling Treatment Side Effects
Resources to help you identify potential side effects from treatment, understand what to do in case of a disturbing side effect and online guides for learning more.


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