Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and writer who specializes in helping clients—as well as their family members and professional caregivers—deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.

“Oh wow!”

That’s what John said after he read through the package insert from the new medication his physician prescribed, and reviewed the list of potential side effects.

After going through this list—this LONG list—John had the feeling that his medication had the potential to afflict just about every part of his body with aches, pains, or allergic reactions, along with his mood. He added another side effect to the list: bad dreams, because that’s what taking this medication was going to give him.

What was especially frustrating to John was that his physician had briefly mentioned a couple of side effects when she was giving instructions on how and when to take it. He hadn’t really paid that much attention. But he would have, had she gone through this extensive list with him.

What about you? Have you ever taken a look at the side effect list that comes with your medications, or done some research on the Web? If so, do you ever notice anything on the list that worries you? Or, on the other hand, are you avoiding those side effect lists so that you don’t have to feel like John?

Either way, here are some ideas to keep in mind when you’re thinking about the potential side effects of your medications.

First, knowledge is power!

It’s your body, your health. So take the time to be aware of each and every medication you are taking, what it does, how it works, and the ways in which it can affect you. After all, nobody knows you like you do.

Understand the purpose of side effect lists.

Pharmaceutical companies are required by the FDA to be completely transparent regarding the potential side effects of the medications they offer to the public. So the side effects that they encounter during the process of developing the drug, or after it’s in use, have to be made public. But notice that the list may include a heading indicating that some side effects need to be immediately reported to your physician, while others are not included under that heading. You may also see words like, “small numbers of patients …” That should give you an idea of what side effects are potentially more likely, and more dangerous, and what side effects are not. And as further evidence that pharmaceutical companies have to act cautiously, notice the words, “this is not a complete list of side effects and others may occur.” Essentially, the list includes “everything but the kitchen sink,” including what hasn’t yet been discovered.

Keep your perspective.

Avoid assumptions. Just because a side effect appears on this list, that doesn’t mean it will be a side effect you will experience. And while you might have experienced some of these side effects with other medications, that doesn’t mean you will experience it with this one. In other words, try not to scare yourself with assumptions and expectations. Stay objective as you evaluate potential side effects.

Have a talk with your doctor.

If you are concerned enough about potential side effects that you don’t feel ready to begin using a new medication, then get in touch with your physician right away. Either in person or by phone. Be specific about which side effects concern you, and ask for your physician’s perspective. By the way, if you have experienced any of these side effects in the past, from other medications, then bring this up with your doctor. Don’t assume you will experience a side effect, but also don’t assume you won’t.

Be ready to consider the options.

If the conversation with your doctor doesn’t set your mind at ease, at least enough to give the new medication a try, then ask your doctor about other options. He/she may be able to recommend an alternative medication that treats your condition, but has few, or different, possible side effects. It can’t hurt to ask. The other options, however, may not be as effective in your physician’s experience, or they may not be covered by your insurance company, or may be available only at a higher copay. So also be ready to evaluate the trade-offs.

Don’t forget your other meds.

If you are taking additional medications, then make sure your physician is aware of this. Keep in mind that if you are working with more than one physician, you may also be at risk for the side effects that can result from multiple medications working, or not working, together. It also can’t hurt to do some research on your own to check on potential interactions between different medications. Additionally, your pharmacist may also be able to check on drug interactions.

And stay on the safe side.

It never hurts to give your physician’s office a call if you have an uncomfortable and/or unexpected side effect. If you see/feel something, say something. This is your health, and your life, so don’t hesitate to be “high maintenance.”

Your body. Your medications. Potential side effects. Get educated. Ask questions. Advocate for yourself.