Depression: Coping With Medication Side Effects

Medication can be a helpful tool in managing depression. The medication – or medications – our doctor prescribes us will vary from person to person. It’s always important to take medication as prescribed.

As with all medications, there is a risk we will experience side effects. Most are manageable – but in some occasions people do react badly to a medication. If we find our side effects are significantly affecting our life, it’s important to contact our doctor or chemist soon as possible. We should never stop taking our medications without medical advice.

Depression Coping With Medication Side Effects

Introducing Medication

When we first start taking medication, it’s important to be careful about driving until we know how it affects us. Some medications can affect our concentration or reaction times. There are some medications that we legally can’t drive on, if there are over certain levels of them in our blood.

It’s important to always read the information sheet that comes with our medication, and to keep track of any side effects we’re experiencing, particularly when we first start taking a new prescription.

If we work, it can help to take a few days off until we know how the medication affects us – or we can start taking it over a weekend. This gives us time to let it settle and learn to manage any side effects without the added pressure of work. Sometimes, we can have a lot of side effects when first start a new medication which settle over time.  Some side effects might stick around a little longer, but most are manageable.

Common Side Effects – and how to manage them

The potential side effects we can experience vary, depending on the medication we’re taking.  Below we share some of the most common complaints, and things we can try to help manage them.

1. Bowel Problems

Medication can cause a variety of bowel problems. This could include difficulty urinating, constipation, flatulence, or other bowel issues.

Trying to stick to a balanced diet can be helpful. Sometimes there might be particular foods which make our symptoms worse. Having probiotics, in yoghurts, capsules or powder, can help some symptoms.

Sometimes, other medications can help with side effects. The medication we need will depend on the side effects we’re having. It’s helpful to visit the chemist and get some advice from the pharmacist to make sure we’re improving things not making them worse.

2. Decreased Concentration

A short attention span can be a symptom of depression as well as a side effect of medication. If we have problems with memory and concentration, writing lists, breaking down tasks and setting reminders, can all help.

3. Decreased Sex Drive

Having a decreased sex drive is a common side effect that people don’t often talk about.

If we’re in a relationship, we should try and speak to our partner about what’s going on. It’s important that they know that it’s the medication that’s responsible, and not them.

If the problem persists, our GP might be able to offer some support and advice. Relate can also offer sex and relationship support and advice, too.

We can also try cutting back on alcohol, as this can also impact on our libido.

4. Dizziness

It’s common to feel dizzy when we take certain medications.

Dehydration can make dizziness worse, so it’s important to make sure that we are drinking enough fluid. Alcohol and caffeine can contribute to dehydration so it can help to avoid them.

Taking our medication at night so that the dizziness wears off while we’re asleep can help to reduce it.  If it doesn’t wear off and it’s interfering with our life it’s important to speak to our doctor about it.

5. Drowsiness

Many medications can cause us to be drowsy. One of the best ways to manage this is to take them at night, unless there is a reason that we have to take them during the day. This can be handy if we struggle with insomnia because it can also help us sleep.

If we have to take our medication during the day, we need to try and be patient and pace ourselves. We might not get quite as much done as we usually do, but it’s not our fault.

It’s also vital we stay safe. If our medications make us drowsy we should avoid driving or operating machinery. If this isn’t possible we should talk to our GP as soon as possible.

6. Dry Mouth

Having a constantly dry mouth (or ‘cottonmouth’) can be discomforting.

Drinking regular sips of cold water can help ease our symptoms. We could also try crunching ice cubes or eating ice lollies. Chewing gum or sucking sweets can  help too as they activate our salivary glands.

Smoking and drinking alcohol or caffeine can exacerbate a dry mouth, so cutting down on these can be beneficial.

Our GP may be able to prescribe  a mouthwash or spray to keep our mouth moist.

7. Feeling Drunk

Sometimes medication can cause us to feel drunk or spaced out. We need to be careful about driving or cycling until the feeling settles.

Often, feelings of drunkenness will improve as our bodies get used to the medication. If it lasts longer than a week or so, and we’re finding it’s interfering with our life, it’s worth speaking to our GP about it.

8. Headaches

The usual headache advice applies to headaches caused by medication. This includes drinking plenty of water, eating regular meals, and sleeping enough. In the summer we need to be careful of how much time we spend in the sun.

If the headaches are persistent, we should mention it to our GP.

9. Increased Suicidal Thoughts

If we’re feeling unsafe, it’s important that we reach out for help as soon as possible.

If we’re having suicidal thoughts, starting medication can sometimes make them stronger. They can also make them more dangerous, because when we’re really low, we don’t have the energy to do anything. When we begin to feel better, we have more energy which could mean that we’re more likely to act on suicidal feelings.

Creating a crisis plan, before we reach the point where we’re in crisis is useful. These mean that at the point where we do begin to feel unsafe, we don’t have to think about what to do, we just follow our plan. Sharing the plan with those close to us, so that they know what to do should we hit crisis point can also help.

Suicidal thoughts are deeply unpleasant and exhausting. Although our heads might protest, it’s important to be kind to ourselves and try to up our self-care game.

BuddyBox 10. Insomnia

If our medication is making it hard to sleep, we could try taking it on a morning to see if that helps.

At night times, if we’re a tea-drinker, we could have a ‘sleepy’ tea half an hour before bed. Teas containing things like lavender or camomile can help us to sleep. If we’re not a tea-drinker, we could have a warm, milky drink before bed. We could also try things like spritzing lavender spray on our pillow, or using fragranced heat packs. Having a warm bath or shower before bed can help us to sleep, too, as can avoiding using devices in the run-up to bedtime.

Sleep is essential for wellbeing, so if we’re really struggling with insomnia we talk to our GP. They might have some more ideas, or may be able to prescribe us something which could help.

11. Irritability

Being irritable can be a symptom of depression or anxiety as well as a side effect of medication.

Limiting alcohol and caffeine intake can help to reduce our levels of irritability. Taking time out to wind down, relax, and have a break from life, can help to bring our levels of irritability down.

When talking to other people, there might be times when we snap at them or fall out with them. This is part of normal life, but can be worse when we’re extra irritable. It can help to try and communicate our needs with others, and having an open conversation. If we do end up in conflict with someone, it’s useful to try and make amends as soon as possible, as this can help to stop things from spiralling. In general, it helps to be honest with each other about our needs and feelings – though this isn’t always easy.

12. Muscle Problems

Medication can cause a variety of muscle problems. This includes – but isn’t limited to – jerkiness, shakiness, pain, or aches.

Heat packs can help with aches and pains, as might gentle stretching. Jerkiness and shakiness are sometimes worse straight after taking a medication: if that’s the case it might help to take it at night.

13. Nausea

Lots of different medications can cause nausea. Being careful to take it with or without food, as directed, can help.

Eating little and often might be helpful. Strong smells can make nausea worse, so we might want to stick to foods that don’t smell too powerful. Trying not to drink too much before or after eating can also help.

Ginger can sometimes help nausea. Some people find peppermints or peppermint tea helpful, too. If the nausea feels acid-based, we could try over the counter medications such as Gaviscon.

Sometimes, taking our medication before bed can help because the sickness might wear off by the morning.

14. Restlessness

Restlessness is a common side effect of mental health medications. We might need the dose of our medication changing, or we might need to try a different medication.

Sometimes vitamin B6 can impact restlessness.  Exercise might can help by ‘burning off’ some of the restlessness.

Practicing relaxation is helpful for some people. Muscle relaxation, visualisation and meditation can all help to reduce restlessness.

15. Skin Problems

Sometimes medications can cause skin irritations or skin allergies. Unless these are very mild and short-term, we probably need to speak to a doctor about these. Over-the-counter treatments like anti-histamines can cause problems when taken alongside anti-depressants, so we’ll need to check with the pharmacist or GP before taking anything.

16. Vision Changes

We might experience blurred vision, double vision, or other vision problems. It’s important that we don’t drive until we can get it under control. We might need to avoid other things too such as cycling or using heavy equipment like chainsaws.

If we’ve not had an eye test for a while, it’s good plan to book one in just in case something else is causing our vision problems.

If we are having any vision changes, we need to speak to our doctor or pharmacist and see what they suggest.

17. Weight Gain

Medications can sometimes cause weight gain. Usually, this is accompanied by increased appetite or sugar cravings.

Weight gain isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself – carrying a little extra weight isn’t always harmful to our health. However there is a lot of stigma around weight gain, which coupled with low self-esteem can be mentally problematic.

If we’re worried about weight gain, being mindful about what we’re eating and the amount of exercise we’re taking can help. Eating a balanced diet is always beneficial.  Formal exercise often doesn’t feel possible when we’re depressed – our energy may be too low or we may lack motivation – but even the smallest actions count. A walk round the block, taking the stairs instead of the lift of getting off the bus a stop early are all steps in the right direction.

If we’re really struggling with weight gain, and how it’s making us feel, we should talk to our GP or mental health team. Sometimes they might be able to give us more specialist advice, or refer us to a dietitian.

Final thoughts on Medication

There are many potential side effects that come with medication; while the list above covers the most common, it doesn’t cover them all.

If we are concerned about any side effect, we should book an appointment with our doctor for advice. If a side effect is urgent we can ring 111, visit our local walk-in centre or A&E.  In absolute emergencies we can ring 999.

While the thought of side effects can be concerning, by and large the benefits of medication outweigh the discomforts that come with them.  It’s also worth noting that while some of us experience side effects, some of us may be able to take medication with no issues at all.  Each medication is different and will affect different people in different ways.

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