When You’re Taking Heart Medications

Millions of Americans take some kind of heart medication. For some people, this means downing a single daily pill to help lower blood pressure. For others, it may mean taking a wide variety of different drugs to strengthen heart function, decrease cholesterol levels, prevent blood clots, or stabilize heart rhythms.

These little pills and potions are life-giving—and powerful.

“Even a drug to control high blood pressure can lower your heart disease risks,” says Lisa J. Young, M.D., a cardiologist in Memphis, Tenn., and a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association (AHA). “Just by dropping the top number of your blood pressure reading by 5 points and the bottom number by 2 points, you can cut your risk for heart attack or heart failure by 20 to 25 percent.”

At the same time, she adds, taking these medications the wrong way or discontinuing them without first consulting your health care provider could be dangerous, even fatal.

Here is some of Dr. Young’s best advice for managing heart medications.

Keep a current list of all your medications

Not only will keeping a list help you stay on top of what you need to take and when, but it’s also critical information to share with every health care provider treating you to ensure your care is managed safely and appropriately.

Some people keep a list of their medications on a computer so they can easily update it. Dr. Young recommends listing the name of the medication in one column, the dosage in the next column, and the drug’s purpose—for example, “heart rhythm” or “blood pressure”—in the next.

Make medications part of your routine

“A medication can’t help you unless you take it,” Dr. Young says.

What’s easy for you to remember: Taking your meds every evening before brushing your teeth? Every morning with breakfast? Just be sure to follow any medication instructions. Some statins, for example, which are cholesterol-reducing medications, often work better taken before bed, because the body tends to produce more cholesterol at night.

Talk with your doctor first

Check with your health care provider or pharmacist before taking any new medication, whether the drug is prescription, over-the-counter, or an herbal preparation.

“Heart medication drug interactions can be serious,” Dr. Young says.

If you’re on the blood-thinner warfarin, for instance, taking a drug or alternative therapy that further thins your blood could put you at risk for a life-threatening stroke or internal bleeding.

According to Dr. Young, these over-the-counter drugs can be particularly hazardous to heart patients:

  • Decongestants, which can elevate your blood pressure and cause heart rhythm abnormalities

  • Migraine headache medications, which can elevate blood pressure and even bring on a heart attack in people with advanced heart disease

  • Weight-loss medications, which contain ephedrine, a drug that can increase blood pressure and heart rate and cause heart rhythm problems

Stick with a single pharmacy

Many pharmacists rely on a sophisticated computer system that does a cross-check of all your medications with each new prescription and automatically warns of potential adverse drug interactions. If you purchase a drug elsewhere, however, it won’t show up in the system.

Don’t stop taking a drug

You should never stop taking a drug without your doctor’s OK. If price is an issue, ask your health care provider if there’s a lower-cost alternative.

If you abruptly stop taking beta-blockers, your heart rate and blood pressure can temporarily soar. If you discontinue a drug that stabilizes your heart rhythm or prevents blood clots, you could suffer a heart attack.

For the same reasons, never delay refilling a prescription.

Have the medical tests your doctor recommends

Regular blood pressure checks can let you know if your hypertension medication needs adjusting. Routine blood tests are critical if you’re taking cholesterol-lowering statin drugs. These drugs can affect the liver, and symptoms won’t appear until liver damage is advanced.

Be alert to side effects

“If you do develop a side effect, don’t just stop taking the drug; call your doctor’s office and let him or her know,” Dr. Young says.

Your doctor may be able to prescribe another medication that can do just as good a job without the side effect. If you have signs of an allergic reaction—for example, you break out in a rash, start to swell up, or have a lot of itching—call 911.

Above all, don’t let worries over the risks of these wonder drugs keep you from taking them.

“Heart medications have progressed significantly over the years,” Dr. Young says. “Work with your physician to make sure he or she tailors the treatment that’s best for you.”

Heart medication resources

  • A printable medicine chart to help you keep track of your medications is available at the AHA Web site. Visit http://www.americanheart.org and search for “medication chart.”

  • A wide variety of resources on the wise use of prescription and other medications is available at the National Council on Patient Information and Education's Web site. Visit http://www.talkaboutrx.org and click on “For Medicine Users,” then “Tools for Consumers.”

  • You can learn how to get a “medication checkup” by visiting the AHA Web site. Visit http://www.americanheart.org and search for “How to Get a Checkup on Your Medications.”

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