Heart failure

Side effects of medication

Because people with heart failure take many different drugs, they may well experience unusual sensations or new feelings. Some reactions such as extreme sun-sensitivity are clearly a side effect of medication, but other feelings such as confusion or memory loss may be part of having heart failure. One or two people said they had experienced no side effects from their medication, and several recognised that it was difficult to tell the difference between symptom and side effect. The side effects we were told about included indigestion, diarrhoea, upset stomach, hot and cold feet, leg pains, depression, blood in the urine, liver and kidney problems, gout, flatulence, itchy ears, thyroid problems, eye problems and tiredness.

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Most people said that they had experienced dizziness and nausea when they first started taking beta-blockers, though these feelings usually stopped once they had got used to them. Some men noticed they had lost interest in sex since having heart failure and several could not maintain an erection; most did not know whether to blame heart failure or medication, though one man was convinced that atenolol had affected his sexual ability.

Two men had experienced breast enlargement and soreness which had shocked them; one didn't know what the cause was, and the other said the condition improved when he stopped taking spironolactone (a type of diuretic). Diuretics are intended to rid the body of excess fluid so that going to the loo is the primary effect of the medication, but some found that too high a dose of diuretics could dehydrate them; one woman said she now made sure her fluid intake was carefully balanced with the amount of diuretic she had been prescribed.

Many people had experienced a persistent dry cough when taking certain ACE inhibitors. One man said that his doctor had taken him off ramipril because his cough kept him awake at night someone else said that clopidogrel had made her cough. One woman said she felt completely congested after taking verapamil which had been prescribed for her without an accompanying diuretic.

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Several people experienced extreme reactions to particular drugs, for example one man found he couldn't tolerate simvastatin (Zocor) which gave him hepatitis and made him ill for 2 years Others had adverse reactions to amiodarone; several people had become extremely sensitive to the sun, and though one person had been warned to avoid the sun by his doctor he had taken no notice and got burned. Since then he had taken to wearing gloves and a straw hat whenever he went outside. Someone else said that amiodarone had caused a thyroid problem.

Many found it difficult to pinpoint the cause of some side effects like the loss of appetite; one woman found that the smell of food put her off eating though she still liked cooking. Another person found that he often hated food that he had liked before he was ill which he blamed on all the drugs he was taking. Several people saw no point in worrying about possible side effects because they had to take certain drugs anyway to counteract heart failure, and one person said she chose not to read information leaflets inside pill packets because they might make her imagine side effects.

Because drugs affect people differently it is important to talk to a doctor about any side effects as it is often possible to change medication.

The British Heart Foundations website, it has a number of useful publications including ‘Living with heart failure’ and ‘An everyday guide to living with heart failure’ which explain heart failure medications in more detail.

Last reviewed March 2012.

Last updated March 2012.

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