By Su Robotti, Founder/President, MedShadow Foundation with Laura Broadwell
Your doctor just handed you a new prescription. Do you have a good understanding of what the drug is for? What do you know about the side effects? How long you're supposed to take the drug? All drugs have side effects—they're the downside of medicine. Some side effects are relatively common and well-known while others are serious even life-threatening and others are yet-to-be discovered.
Here is what causes side effects and what can you do to prevent them.
Drugs interact with multiple body systems. No drug can target one part of the body and not affect others. Swallow an antidepressant, for example, and it will travel through and potentially slow down your entire digestive system causing constipation in addition to interacting with your brain.
Extended drug intake may require tweaking dosage. Over time your body might become more or less sensitive to a drug for many reasons including aging or weight loss. Some drugs can build to a toxic level in your system. Or, you could become desensitized as a body acclimates to it at which point you'll need a higher or more frequent dosage.
Newly approved drugs may have some surprises. New drugs on the market are of particular concern because not all of their side effects are known. Drug studies tend to work with a narrow population so once a medication is available to the general population, it's not unusual for new side effects to surface.
Form a relationship with your pharmacist. Make sure to fill all of your prescriptions at the same pharmacy and get to know the pharmacist, as that person is an often overlooked, but valuable resource. Ask questions such as, “Why am I taking this medication?; How and when should I take it?; What can I expect to happen if I am taking other medicines?” And voice any other related concerns.
Check Google, but be wary. Google a top-selling drug, such as Abilify—an antipsychotic medication—and you'll be overwhelmed when 7 million results pop up. Instead, search sites affiliated with reputable health centers, hospitals or medical schools. Basic information can be found on the Mayo Clinic site or on WebMD.com. Safe Medication is run by pharmacists and can help with info on how to take meds. For more in-depth information about side effects and alternatives to medicines that aren't helping as much as you'd like, go to MedShadow.org. We started MedShadow.org to help you weigh the benefits and the risks of any drug you take.
Look at government sources. The FDA regulates and approves prescription and non-prescription drugs, and its website has a wealth of information about drug safety, drug recalls and side effects. The FDA also maintains an Adverse Event Reporting System (FAERS), a database of information on adverse event and medication error reports. If you want to report your own side-effect problems, contact the FDA's MedWatch.
Single-disease organizations are a great resource. Organizations that specialize in, and conduct research into, a particular condition may have news about the latest drugs and their side effects. For example, the Michael J. Fox Foundation provides a wealth of cutting-edge information to those with Parkinson's disease. Other groups such as the American Thyroid Association, National Cancer Institute and American Heart Association—to name a few—provide useful information as well.
Patient forums provide a great sounding board. While established medical sites often prove helpful, patients sometimes need emotional support and answers about daily living with chronic issues. That's where Facebook support groups and other patient forums can bring people with similar medical conditions together, sharing information on their personal experiences as well as on side effects.