Are Side Effects Putting a Damper on Your Life?

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on March 29, 2023

Many medications can cause side effects that are unpleasant or annoying. But sometimes, they can be embarrassing enough to crimp your social or sex life or disrupt your everyday routines.

The quickest fix is to switch your medicine. But even if that isn’t an option, you may have other ways to avoid or at least lessen these pesky problems.

Bad breath. Drugs for schizophrenia, chest pains, rheumatoid arthritis, and more than a dozen other conditions are known to foul your breath. Others can give you dry mouth, which can lead to sour mouth. The odors may be fishy, garlicky, or like rotten eggs -- and bad enough to make you keep your distance from the others.

What you can do. Good oral hygiene is your best tool. Brush your teeth and tongue at least twice a day and floss once daily. Drink extra water and chew sugarless gum to help keep your mouth moist. Your doctor also may prescribe medicine so you can make more saliva.

Brain fog. Cancer drugs, antidepressants, and painkillers are just a few of the medicines that can make your brain feel fuzzy. It may be tough to concentrate. You may struggle to recall people’s names or words, or to get anything done.

What you can do. The foggy feeling should stop once you finish treatment. Until then, take notes or use a recorder to jog your memory. Handle the most complicated tasks at times when you're most alert.

Gas and bloating. Cancer meds and NSAID pain relievers can slow down or speed up how quickly food moves through your stomach and intestines. Other drugs let gas-producing bacteria flourish inside your gut. They can lead to uncomfortable bloating and embarrassing burps and farts.

What you can do. Eat smaller amounts of food more often during the day. Stay away from gassy foods like beans and broccoli. Ask your doctor if you should take an over-the-counter gas remedy that has the ingredient simethicone.

Hair loss. You can lose not just what’s on your head, but also your eyelashes, eyebrows, and body hair. It’s common with cancer drugs. But medications for arthritis, heart disease, gout, and depression also can thin out your hair.

What you can do. Sparse strands or bald patches may make you self-conscious. Your hair should grow back once you've finished treatment. Until then, treat your remaining hair with TLC. Use a soft brush and a gentle shampoo. Try a hat, scarf, or a wig to cover the bald patches.

Involuntary movements. Drugs for Parkinson's disease, psychosis, and digestive problems can make you twitchy or shaky. These uncontrollable gestures are called dyskinesia. They stem from shifting levels of dopamine, a chemical that helps your body move smoothly.

What you can do. One common solution is to lower your drug dose or change how often you take it. For those with Parkinson’s, for example, a long-release form of the drug levodopa helps keep dopamine levels steady in the brain.

Leaking pee. Some drugs for high blood pressure and heart failure prompt your body to make more urine. Antidepressants and pain relievers may prevent your bladder from emptying fully. And sleeping pills can leave you so drowsy that you may not feel the urge to go. All of these medicines can make you leak urine.

What you can do. Cut back on fluids. Avoid caffeinated soda, coffee, and tea, which act like diuretics make you go more. Try pads or absorbent underwear to catch leaks and to mask odors.

Runny poop. Some drugs make your intestines soak up more water. Others quicken your food’s passage through your gut. Both can turn your stools runny and hard to control.

What you can do. To manage diarrhea, eat easy-to-digest foods like bananas, rice, and toast. Ask your doctor if you should take an over-the-counter anti-diarrheal drug. And drink extra water so you don’t get dehydrated. Sit on the toilet before you head out and at regular intervals during the day.

Sex problems. A long list of drugs can interfere with your sex life, including anti-anxiety drugs, blood pressure medicines, and birth control pills. Some drugs lower your interest in sex. Others prevent men from getting an erection or dry out a woman's vagina so much that sex hurts.

What you can do. Ask your doctor if you can switch to medications without sexual side effects. Lubricants can ease vaginal dryness, and drugs for erectile dysfunction may help some men.

Sweating. Antidepressants, pain relievers, and several other drugs can rev up your sweat glands. Perspiration stains under your arms and sweaty palms can be hard to hide when you’re out and about.

What you can do. If you can't stop taking the drug, try to stay out of the heat. High-strength antiperspirant applied under your arms and on your palms and feet can help keep them dry. For really bothersome sweating, ask your doctor about medicines that tamp down your sweat glands.

If you’re forced to change medications because of bothersome side effects, talk to your doctor before you quit taking them or make any swaps.

Some drugs need to be tapered off slowly. With others, you need to take the full dose for it to work. Going off a medication too quickly or too soon could set off even worse side effects or make you ill. Your doctor will help you safely wean off the first drug and start on the new medicine.

Some drug side effects can be bad enough to hurt your self-esteem and quality of life. Help is available if you need it.

Ask your doctor and other members of your medical team for advice. You can also talk to a therapist or counselor, who'll offer strategies to help you cope with the emotional impact of your side effects.

Show Sources

SOURCES: "Gas (flatulence)." "Diarrhea." "Hair loss or alopecia."

Cleveland Clinic: "Are your medications causing or increasing incontinence?"

Drug Safety: "Drug-induced hyperhidrosis and hypohidrosis: incidence, prevention, and management."

European Review for Medical and Pharmacological Sciences: "Drug-related oral malodour (halitosis): a literature review.

FDA: "Medicines and You: A Guide for Older Adults."

International Hyperhidrosis Society: "Antiperspirant Basics." "Common Drugs/Medications Known to Cause Diaphoresis Listed by Therapeutic Class." "Oral Medications."

International Society for Sexual Medicine: "What types of drugs have general sexual side effects?"

Mayo Clinic: "Bad breath: Diagnosis & treatment," "Bad breath: Symptoms & causes," "Chemo brain: Diagnosis & treatment," "Chemo brain: Symptoms & causes," "Gas and gas pains: Diagnosis & treatment," "Hair loss: Symptoms & causes," "High blood pressure and sex: Overcome the challenges."

Medscape: "A Pharmacy of Suspects: Drug-Induced Diarrhea's Likeliest Causes."

National Health Service (UK): "Non-surgical treatment--urinary incontinence."

The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research: "Dyskinesia."

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