Photo: Getty Images
Should you take a statin?
Statinsa class of drug that includes atorvastatin (Lipitor), simvastatin (Zocor), and othersare among the most effective drugs for lowering cholesterol. They are also among the most widely prescribed drugs of all time.
Like other drugs, however, statins have potentially serious side effects, and there are instances in which they should not be taken. Here is a rundown of things you should look out for if you are taking a statin, and times when you should steer clear of the drugs altogether.
Muscle pain and weakness
About 10% of statin users get aches and pains, says William O'Neill, MD, a cardiologist at the University of Miami School of Medicine, in Miami, Fla. The higher your dose, the more likely you are to experience aches and pains.
Much less commonbut more seriousis (rhabdomyolysis), in which muscle cells break down and release proteins such as myoglobin that damage kidneys.
"[The pain] is usually in the thighs, shoulders, upper arms, and/or lower back, and doesn't go away even when you are at rest," Dr. O'Neill says.
Let your doctor know as soon as possible if you experience these symptoms. You may need to switch drugs, or stop statins completely.
Increased liver enzymes
Some people who take statins will see an increase in liver enzymes. The risk may be higher if you take other cholesterol-lowering medications along with statins.
Since there are no symptoms to indicate an increase in liver enzymes and no way to predict it in advance, you should have a blood test within six weeks of starting a statin. If enzymes are elevated, options include stopping or switching statins.
"Just because you have problems with one doesn't mean you will have problems with all of them," Dr. O'Neill says.(Dr. O’Neill has received consulting fees from a company that makes statins).
Some research suggests statins help with asthma symptoms, but a 2011 study found that 20 people with asthma who took statins had more symptoms and worse lung function than 20 asthma patients who didn't take them.
The lead researcher, Safa Nsouli, MD, the director of the Danville Asthma and Allergy Clinic, in Danville, Calif., says the study's results don't mean people with asthma have to stop using statins, but they may need to adjust their asthma medication.
"The doctor should increase your asthma treatment to get better control of your symptoms," Dr. Nsouli says.
If you are pregnant or thinking about having a baby, you should not take statins. Although the effect of statins during pregnancy is not clear, research has brought up concern of birth defects. Cholesterol is a building block for developing brains, hearts, and limbs.
If you are taking a statin, tell your doctor immediately if you become pregnant or are thinking about having a baby. Women who are breastfeeding should also not take statins.
Using antibiotics or antifungal drugs
If you develop an infection and your doctor recommends treatment with an antibiotic or antifungal drug, make sure he or she knows you are taking a statin.
"You are at greater risk of muscle damage when you take these medications with a statin," Dr. O'Neill says. The best bet may be not to take statins while the infection is being treated.