Patients who have a high risk of experiencing a heart attack or stroke may need to take special medications, known as blood thinners or anti-coagulant therapy, to prevent the formation of blood clots. These medications also can be used if you have been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation or certain congenital heart defects, or had heart valve surgery.
The two main types of blood thinners that your doctor may prescribe are:
- Anticoagulants such as heparin or Coumadin (warfarin). These drugs use a chemical process to lengthen the time it takes for your blood to clot. Low-molecular-weight heparin is given by injecting the drug just under your skin, normally once a day. The strength of the drug is more consistent than standard heparin, and it has fewer side effects. Both heparin and low-molecular-weight heparin are created using animal tissues. Arixtra (fondaparinus), which was recently introduced, has some of the same characteristics as low-molecular-weight heparin. Arixtra, however, is a synthetic drug. It also is given once a day by injection. If your doctor prescribes one of these drugs, you will need routine blood tests to see how quickly your blood clots and to ensure you are taking the correct dose for your condition.
- Antiplatelet drugs. These drugs, which include aspirin, prevent platelets in your blood from forming clumps that may lead to dangerous clots. Plavix (clopidogrel) is a new medication that helps stop platelet clumping in the blood stream. Unlike anticoagulants, Plavix doesn’t require regular blood tests. Side effects may include diarrhea, skin rash, itching, and nausea or stomach pain.
If your doctor prescribes any of these medications, you need to take certain precautions.
- Keep a record of the name of your medication, dosage and the name and phone number of the prescribing doctor. You should carry this information with you at all times and make sure your family members or caregivers know as well. You may want to get a medical alert bracelet, but you can just keep a copy of the information in your wallet near your identification cards.
- If you are on an anticoagulant drug, do not take aspirin unless your doctor tells you to do so.
- Always check over-the-counter medicines to make sure they don’t have aspirin listed as an ingredient.
- Tell your doctor about any herbs or vitamins you take to make sure they won’t react with your medication.
- Ask your doctor if there are any foods you should avoid.
- Tell all your doctors about the medications you take since other drugs can interact with them. You also should alert your pharmacist, especially if you use more than one pharmacy.
- Don’t stop taking your antiplatelet or anticoagulant medications without first talking to your doctor. Also, remember to keep any appointments for blood tests that will help your doctor ensure the medication is working properly.
Anticoagulants may cause bleeding problems. Be alert for signs of bleeding such as red or dark brown urine; red, dark brown or black stools; bleeding gums; feeling weak or dizzy and unusual bleeding or bruising. If you plan on becoming pregnant or think you might be pregnant, talk to your doctor about your medications. Also tell your dentist and doctor prior to any dental procedures or surgery about your medicines. You may need to change your medication schedule.
Antiplatelet drugs and anticoagulants can prevent dangerous clots from forming in your blood. You also should consider getting regular exercise, losing weight, healthier eating and stopping smoking. These measures combined with your medications can help lower your risk of heart attacks and stroke.
To learn more or to find a physician near you, call Delray Medical Center at (866) 358-4DOC.