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Managing Drug Side Effects

August 2002

Side Effects: The Basics

Almost all drugs used to treat any type of disease can cause side effects. But this does not mean that everyone who takes a drug or combination of drugs will experience side effects. We do know that people with lower CD4 cell counts or a long history of anti-HIV drug use may be more likely to experience side effects than patients with healthier immune systems. Things like age, body weight and size, sex, and overall health may also influence how bad side effects will be and how long they will last.

Understanding which side effects might occur while taking drugs to treat HIV and AIDS can help you prepare and deal with them if they occur. Because some side effects might not necessarily make you feel ill -- such as the beginning stages of liver damage -- it is important for you and your doctor to monitor your health carefully and to have regular laboratory tests to detect any problems you might be experiencing.

Starting a new medication? Here are a few questions to ask your doctor:

  • What are the possible side effects of this drug?


  • Which side effects am I most likely to experience?

  • When will the side effects start?

  • How long will they last?

  • Will the side effects go away by themselves?

  • Are there any long-term side effects?

  • What should I do if I have a side effect?

  • Can I do anything to prevent certain side effects from happening?

  • Are there any dangerous side effects I should know about? If so, what should I do if I start having them?

There are also some questions you might want to ask yourself. Figuring out answers to these questions can help you and your doctor determine which medication is right for you.

Much of what we learn about a drug's side effects comes from studies conducted before its approval by the FDA. However, some long-term side effects may not be spotted in the early months or years of a clinical trial. We are still learning about the side effects of some drugs, especially drugs that were approved only a few years ago.

Pharmaceutical companies are required by law to report the side effects that their drugs may cause. Information about a drug's side effects can always be found in the package insert -- also referred to as the prescribing information -- which is reviewed by the FDA before the drug is approved for marketing and is routinely updated by the manufacturer. While the pharmacists often remove the package insert -- that folded piece of paper that contains information about the drug's chemical structure, efficacy, and side effects -- it must be made available to you upon request when the drug is dispensed.

If you think you are experiencing a side effect, be sure to mention it to your doctor. It is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between side effects and symptoms of other complications, such as an opportunistic infection. By reviewing your medical history, the medications you are taking, and conducting a thorough physical exam, your healthcare provider can determine the source of the symptoms and help you figure out how best to treat them. You should not, however, stop or change the doses of any of your drugs without first consulting with your doctor.

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This article was provided by AIDS Community Research Initiative of America. Visit ACRIA's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.