Understanding Side Effects

Lunesta's side effects from DrugFactsBox

Lunesta's side effects from DrugFactsBox

Side effects are medicine’s boogey man - all the bad things that might happen to you if you take a prescription drug.

When we talk to patients about their prescriptions, the first question most people ask is about side effects. It’s a natural question, as who wants to take a pill that might cause harm? And drug ads don’t help - you hear about nausea and death within the same thirty seconds. However, understanding side effects becomes easier when the facts are more clearly organized.  Some side effects can be severe and permanent, while others are simply bothersome and disappear when you stop taking the drug. You might think twice before taking a medicine that causes nausea, but what if it happened only 1% of the time? Maybe you would feel differently when you saw the numbers. Most people do.

Knowing exactly how often a side effect happens -- and how serious it is --  is key to weighing the benefits and harms of a drug.  Here are 3 categories of seriousness:

  1. Black Box Warning - FDA’s most serious side effect alert.  The  warning appears at the very top of a drug’s tissue paper insert---in a bolded, black box.  A black box warning should always be read and considered very seriously before taking a prescription drug.

  2. Serious side effects - not quite as severe as a black box warning, but can still be dangerous or even life-threatening. For example, a serious side effect would be damage to vital organs like the kidney or liver  -- which might lead to organ failure or even death. Fortunately these side effects are typically rare.  Because they might affect certain people more than others, it’s important to discuss them with your doctor to understand how dangerous they might be for you.

  3. Symptom - or bothersome - side effects. While they might be unpleasant or even painful, they’re not life-threatening.  Dry mouth, dizziness, and headache are examples of symptom side effects. However, these side effects can become so bothersome that for some people they outweigh the benefits and negatively impact everyday living-- therefore getting facts on how often these happen is paramount.

See side effect data and more in the DrugFactsBox™ beta, available now. 

Karen Lubell

Karen Lubell is a writer living in the Hanover, NH area. She holds degrees from Dartmouth College as well as New York University, where she taught writing while pursuing doctoral work in English Literature. She has worked as a writer and researcher in many different fields, including a stint at the New York Times as the language researcher for William Safire. Her special interest in the health sciences began four years ago with a health scare, which led her to the work of Drs. Schwartz and Woloshin. She is very excited to be a part of the Informulary team, and help with their mission to make data about prescription accessible to all. She lives in Norwich, Vermont with her husband, two children, and one very old cat.