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 small drop in your blood pressure reading can cut your risk of having a heart attack.
At the same time, taking these medications the wrong way or discontinuing them without first consulting your health care provider could be dangerous, even fatal.
The American Heart Association (AHA) and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute offer the following medication advice.
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. It may be easier to have the record in columns, with 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
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, dietary supplement, or an herbal preparation. Drug interactions can cause many, often serious, problems.
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.
Over-the-counter drugs can be particularly hazardous to heart patients:
Decongestants, which can elevate your blood pressure and cause heart rhythm abnormalities
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 think you are having a medication side effect, call your health provider right away. 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 a severe allergic reaction—for example, you have trouble breathing, break out in a rash, start to swell up, or have a lot of itching—call 911.