It’s understandable that some people are uneasy about taking medication. These days, it seems you hear as much about risks from drugs as you do about benefits. Even some drugs that have been around for years and used by millions now seem too risky, or so the headlines suggest.

Side effects can occur with any drug, says Stanley Cohen, MD, a rheumatologist and clinical professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. As a prime example he points to acetaminophen, an ingredient in hundreds of over-the-counter remedies and prescription painkillers. Yet, liver damage can occur from taking too much acetaminophen, which can happen if someone doesn’t recognize it on a drug label (sometimes it’s listed as “APAP” or “paracetamol”) or isn’t aware that the maximum safe dose is a combined total of 4,000 mg per day.

Taking medication does involve risk – even for the “safest” of medicines. The goal is to get the most good with the least harm. When deciding whether to take a medication, don’t rely just on the information you get from the news and in drug ads. It’s crucial to share your concerns with your doctor, who can talk about the likely benefits and potential risks specifically for you.

Here, we help lay the groundwork for these discussions – and perhaps reduce some of your fears about side effects, too.

Why You’re Worried

Here are four common reasons for patient concerns, and some objective reassurance from leading experts.

The risks aren’t clear.  On the laundry list of side effects, common and less serious problems are lumped with rare and more serious ones. Patients don’t know which on the list are likely to occur to them and often assume the worst. For example, with bisphosphonates – a medicine used in the treatment of osteoporosis and a complication of cancer – two rare side effects that have caused a lot of concern are osteonecrosis of the jaw and atypical fractures of the femur.

“Patients express worry about ‘that jawbone problem’ or ‘those funny fractures’ they’ve heard about on TV or read about in the paper,” says Jeffrey Curtis, MD, an associate professor of medicine and director of the Arthritis Clinical Intervention Program at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. “But when I ask how likely they think those problems are, they don’t have a clue.”

In this case, it’s partly because the numbers aren’t available. Sometimes the numbers aren’t clear or aren’t easy for the consumer to understand. Have your doctor or pharmacist put the available data into context for you.