When Side Effects Prevail

Nearly one-third of all patients will stop taking a prescription medication without even telling their doctor.

There are a variety of reasons people stop taking medications that have been prescribed for them. Sometimes they don’t think they need to take the medicine, or think it isn’t working. Maybe they’ve heard disturbing stories about someone who took the same medication. Some people don’t trust their doctor or pharmaceutical companies, while others may find the cost makes their medication unaffordable. But the majority of patients who stop taking a medication do so because of unpleasant side effects they experience.

Every medicine has beneficial effects and side-effect risks. Even taking aspirin for headaches has possible side effects, ranging from simple ringing in the ears (tinnitus) to bleeding ulcers. Often it’s hard to know how a medication will affect you without trying it for a period of time. Sometimes those side effects will dissipate or become unnoticeable over the first few weeks. The decision to take a medication has to be based on balancing the benefits with the risks of possible side effects.

There are risks involved when you stop taking a medication

If you use an inhaler for asthma or emphysema, you’ve probably experienced the risk when you don’t use it… you find it hard to breathe. The risks of discontinuing most medications are not always so obvious. And when you discontinue a medication, you usually lose all the benefits from taking it. The risks involved when stopping a medication depend on your particular health conditions and the particular medication that has been prescribed for you.

The effects of stopping a medication may be inconsequential, or not always show up right away. In other circumstances the effects of stopping your medication may be immediately evident or cause long-term problems requiring additional treatment to control symptoms.

Discontinuing your allergy medication because it makes you drowsy probably won’t cause any long-term suffering on your part. Stopping other medications, like blood pressure, diabetes or medications treating heart disease, may result in extra emergency room visits or hospitalizations. I’ve even seen cases where patients decided to stop taking their medication that resulted in premature death. Here again, it’s a matter of balancing benefits of taking the medication with the risks involved.

If side effects are intolerable, what are your options?

Your pharmacist probably knows when you’ve stopped taking a prescribed medication. I frequently see this happening with patients I’ve dispensed to. Often their physician is not made aware of it. This always makes me think of the proverbial man who represented himself in a court of law: “He had a fool for a client and an idiot for an attorney.” I believe the same goes for patients who don’t include their physician in the decision to discontinue a medication. A decision to stop taking a medication without consulting your physician is not smart thinking.

It’s best to work with your doctor to find a solution to remedy medication side effects. Sometimes changing the medication dose or changing the time you take the medication can resolve the problems. Other times a different medication may work just as well for you without the undesirable side effects.

Some medical conditions are treatable with diet and exercise or other types of non-medication approaches. After experiencing side effects of a medicine, you might decide changing your lifestyle is the better path for you. Your doctor will be able to guide you through this decision-making process to decide what approach is best for you.

It’s always important for you to be informed about your medications, how they work and what side effects you might experience. You are the most important member of your medical care team. But don’t rely on Dr. Google to self-diagnose and make medication decisions on your own. Always consult your doctor or healthcare provider before stopping any medication.


Dave Walker, RPh

Dave Walker, RPh, is a pharmacist and a member of the MedShadow medical advisory board. He has practiced in multiple pharmacy settings as a pharmacy owner, hospital director of pharmacy, district manager for a pharmacy staffing agency, and currently director of pharmacy at a rural, nonprofit clinic and pharmacy. You can follow him on Twitter @drwalker_rph.

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