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When It's Hard to Tell the Difference Between Symptoms and Medication Side Effects

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We all have heard that commercial. The one that says, “Ask your doctor if _______ is right for you.”

If you are anything like me you probably have taken a break, changed the laundry over, ran to the kitchen for a drink or visited the restroom. Upon returning, the ad is still on and listing all the side effects that are possible while taking said medication.

Have you ever questioned who would take that medication if those are the side effects? Especially in cases where a side effect is the reason for taking the medication in the first place.

For instance, say you experience migraines, but the medication for migraines lists headaches as a side effect. Or one that is for intestinal issues, but lists constipation or diarrhea as a side effect.

If you already have a symptom and you’re trying to get relief, why on earth would you want to have that also be the side effect? How do you know during treatment if it is the symptom or the side effect?

In the chronic illness community, we often have to weigh the risk of side effects to take a chance on relief.

What happens when you have a side effect from a medication that is not listed, not common? How do you determine if it is a new symptom or a side effect?

What works for you may not work for me.

In many instances medication that claims it will cause drowsiness wakes me up for days. Meanwhile, medication that is used for fatigue or says it may cause insomnia puts me right out.

I thought I was strange and this was a rare thing, but after many years talking to others in the chronic illness community, I have found I am not alone.

This doesn’t stop with medications, but includes things like physical therapy, changes in diet and holistic measures. There is no one size fits all when it comes to your health care.

Heading into my third DMD (disease-modifying drug) since January of 2019 I have been given lots of advice on what I should do. Some have suggested trying other meds and some advise me not to take them at all.

What we forget when giving someone advice is that we do not have the full picture. We don’t know what they have tried, what other medication(s) they are on and what other medical conditions they have. This also carries over to someone’s weight or eating habits. What we see is only a picture in time, not what is normal in their life.

It is perfectly fine to tell someone what works for you, what didn’t work, and even tell them side effects you had.  This can give them things to watch for if they are on or starting a medication. This also gives them a reference point for discussion with their physician.

Let’s just make a deal to be kind to others when we don’t know their story.

While trying a medication, remember to give it time for side effects to go away, because sometimes they dwindle. Your doctor or pharmacist should give you information on how long side effects should last. Pay attention to new symptoms. Did it start before, after or during the time you have been on the medication?

For the past two years, I have had several relapses with multiple sclerosis, and I was blaming my fatigue on MS. While having a pre-screening for my new medication, I failed an EKG with a low heart rate. Come to find out one of my medications can cause a low heart rate, and that would of course cause fatigue.

I have only been on this medication for less than a year, so it wasn’t the cause of my fatigue two years ago, but that year I had chemo, two kidney stone surgeries and a relapse possibly brought on by all the above. I may have needed the rest to recover.

I have now tapered down off that medication and am waiting for the results. It will be another week or two before we truly know if it was the medication or if I need to see a cardiologist.

This is a real-time testament to the challenge of weighing symptoms and side effects. We just don’t know what to expect when we make that individual choice to take a leap of faith.

We are all just trying to live our best lives free of symptoms and avoiding side effects. What do you find beneficial to help you know the difference?

Getty photo by image source.

Originally published: September 30, 2020
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