Are There Digestive Side Effects to Common Medications?

Some medicines can cause side effects in the digestive system. These medicines include both prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) products. Although these medicines usually are safe and effective, side effects may occur in some people. Always read the label to understand the ingredients, warnings, side effects, and when to consult a doctor. Talk with your doctor before taking a medicine for the first time or adding new drugs to those you already are taking.

With that in mind, here are five potential side effects of common medications typically experienced by the general population:

1. Diarrhea

Diarrhea is a common side effect of many medicines. Diarrhea occurs when the medicine alters the normal bacteria in the large intestine. This allows for the overgrowth of another bacteria, Clostridium difficile (C. difficile), which causes more serious antibiotic-induced diarrhea. 

C. difficile can cause colitis, an intestine inflammation where the bowel weeps excess water and mucus, resulting in loose, watery stools. Most antibiotics can potentially cause C. difficile-induced diarrhea, but it's more common in ampicillin, clindamycin, and the cephalosporins. Antibiotic-induced colitis can be treated with another antibiotic that acts on C. difficile. 

Diarrhea also can be a side effect of drugs that alter the movements or fluid content of the colon, especially in the presence of Colchicine. Magnesium-containing antacids can have a laxative effect and cause diarrhea when overused. The abuse of laxatives may also result in nerve and muscle damage to the colon and cause diarrhea.

2. Constipation

There are a number of medicines that can cause constipation as a side effect. These medicines work by affecting the nerve and muscle activity in the large intestine (colon), which slows down the movement of stool through the intestine and can make it harder to pass. Commonly constipating medicines include blood pressure medications, anticholinergics, cholesterol-lowering drugs, and iron supplements. Some antacids also contain aluminum, which can also contribute to constipation.

3. Delayed Emptying of the Stomach

Some drugs can cause the muscles in the stomach to relax and the contents of the stomach to empty more slowly than normal. This can be a problem for people taking medications for conditions such as depression, Parkinson's disease, or other conditions.

4. Esophageal Reflux

The LES muscle is located between the esophagus and the stomach. It is responsible for allowing food to pass into the stomach after swallowing. Certain medications can interfere with the LES muscle's function, which increases the likelihood of stomach acid refluxing back into the esophagus. Medications that can cause esophageal reflux include nitrates, calcium channel blockers, theophylline, anticholinergics, and birth control pills.

5. Stomach Irritation

The most common stomach injury from NSAIDs is an irritation of the lining. This can happen because NSAIDs weaken the ability of the lining to resist acid. When this occurs, it may lead to inflammation of the stomach lining, ulcers, bleeding, or even a perforation of the lining. It's important to note that stomach irritation can occur without any symptoms. 

Older people are especially at risk for this type of injury because they often take pain medication for arthritis and other chronic conditions. People with a history of peptic ulcers or gastritis are also at risk and should tell their doctor about these conditions. Special medicine may be needed to protect the stomach lining.


There are a variety of digestive side effects that can occur when taking common medications. These include diarrhea, constipation, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. If you experience any of these symptoms, it is important to speak with your doctor or pharmacist. They can help you determine if the medication is the cause and make suggestions on how to manage the side effect.

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