Cholesterol lowering drugs

No one really likes having to take medications, but millions of people in the United States (and around the world) take cholesterol-lowering drugs to get help preventing heart attacks and strokes.

Although statins (Lipitor, Zocor, and others) get all the attention, there are many other drug types that treat high cholesterol, such as niacin, bile-acid resins, fibrates, and Zetia, a cholesterol-absorption inhibitor.

If you are one of the millions taking or considering taking any of these drugs, read on to learn 10 things you should know about cholesterol drugs.

Statins and other cholesterol drugs work, but they are not for everyone. They can have side effects, and may cause birth defects if taken during pregnancy.

“We don’t recommend statins or other cholesterol drugs for women of childbearing age,” says Antonio M. Gotto Jr., MD, professor of medicine at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, in New York City.

They are also not for people at low risk for a heart attack or stroke,” he says. Your risk becomes higher if you are over 60 (50 for men), or have high cholesterol, hypertension, or a family history of heart disease.

Your LDL may drop once you start taking the medication, but these aren’t magic pills. You still may need to lose weight, eat a low-fat diet, and exercise.

“Medication doesn’t take the place of a healthy lifestyle,” Dr. Gotto says. “But if your cholesterol is still not in a range where it should be after you have made changes to your lifestyle or you have had heart attack, you need medication too.” Changing your diet and exercising more can lower your cholesterol by 4% to 13%. Statins lower cholesterol by 20% to 45%, depending on the type of statin.

All drugs have side effects, and cholesterol-lowering drugs are no exception. Although many side effects are more of a nuisance than anything else, some can be serious.

Statins, for example, may increase the risk of muscle-tissue damage and liver damage, risks that could increase if you combine them with antibiotics or other cholesterol drugs.

In general, cholesterol-drug side effects include problems such as nausea, stomach pain, constipation, or diarrhea; drowsiness; and muscle aches, weakness, or facial flushing. Talk with your doctor about switching to a different drug if you experience side effects.