If you recently had a heart attack or been diagnosed with a heart disease, it’s likely you were prescribed medication. It’s important to understand what heart-related medications do, how to take them safely and recognize possible side effects.
Remember your doctor and pharmacist are your best sources of information when it comes to your medications.
“The sheer variety of heart medications available can be overwhelming, especially if you have not had to take any previously,” says Todd Hitchcock, MD, a cardiologist at Scripps Clinic Carmel Valley. “It can be helpful and reassuring to understand why you need certain medications and how they work.”
Heart medications are given to treat heart conditions, manage symptoms and reduce the risk of future heart and vascular events, such as heart attack, heart failure, and stroke. If you are a heart patient, the type of medication you receive will depend on your diagnosis, other conditions you may have, as well as your age and lifestyle.
“Always make sure you know how to take your medications correctly and understand all of the risks, benefits and possible side effects,” notes Dr. Hitchcock.
He adds: “Be sure to ask your doctor whether you should avoid any foods, other prescriptions, or over-the-counter drugs or supplements that may cause adverse interactions.”
The following are some of the most common heart medications:
Blood clots can block the flow of blood through the arteries and lead to heart attack or stroke. Aspirin is the most common antiplatelet agent given to prevent blood clots. It can reduce inflammation associated with heart disease.
Physicians prescribe a daily aspirin to patients who have had a prior heart attack, had a stent implanted in the coronary arteries or legs and patients who’ve had a prior stroke or valve replacement.
After a heart attack and stenting procedure, patients are recommended to take and prescribed an additional antiplatelet medication to help prevent clots. This second clot-preventing medication is taken for a certain period of time that your physician determines is best for you. In most cases, it is not lifelong. Examples include clopidogrel (Plavix), tigagrelor (Brilinta), and prasugrel (Effient).
Angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs) dilate, or widen, blood vessels. This helps improve the flow of blood, eases the demands on the heart and lowers blood pressure.
These drugs are often given for high blood pressure and heart failure. They help decrease the risk of heart attack or stroke in people with heart disease. When given after a heart attack, they help prevent heart damage and future heart attacks.
People with abnormal heart rhythms may be prescribed antiarrhythmic medications. They may have hearts that beat too quickly, too slowly, or irregularly. These drugs help regulate the heart’s electrical activity so that the heart beats normally.
They may be used alone or combined with procedures, such as an ablation, or devices, such as pacemakers and/or internal cardiac defibrillators to treat the most concerning rhythm problems of the heart.
Anticoagulants are often called blood thinners but they don’t actually thin your blood. They help prevent blood from coagulating or clotting.
They’re often taken by people who’ve had heart attacks, have artificial mechanical heart valves, or atrial fibrillation. The most common form of these drugs includes warfarin (Coumadin), rivaroxaban (Xarelto), dabigatran (Pradaxa) and apixaban (Eliquis).
Beta blockers as are often prescribed after a heart attack to help the heart recover. They minimize the effects of harmful substances produced as a result of heart failure. Some can also help improve the heart’s ability to pump blood. Others may be given to treat high blood pressure, angina and abnormal heart rhythms.
Common beta blockers include carvedilol (Coreg), nebivolol (Bystolic), and metoprolol (Toprol).
Calcium channel blockers decrease the heart’s workload by increasing its supply of blood and oxygen. They do this by preventing calcium from entering the cells of the heart and arteries. They can help treat high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms and angina.
They are often given to people who cannot take beta blockers and include verapamil (Verelan) and diltiazem (Cardizem).
Statins help to lower the levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol) in the blood. They can also lower triglyceride levels, which are another type of normal fat in the blood that when elevated increases the risk of atherosclerosis (plaque build up).
Statins decrease bad cholesterol production in the liver and inflammation in cholesterol plaques. Common statins include atorvastatin (Lipitor) and rosuvastatin (Crestor).
“Unfortunately, there is a lot of inaccurate information and misunderstanding regarding medications on the internet,” says Dr. Hitchcock.
“Your clinician can be a trusted resource of information and discuss the intended indications and benefits of your treatment plan, which should always include living as healthy a lifestyle as possible.”