Clearing Up Confusion About Blood Thinning Meds

June 06, 2016 7:00 AM

If information about your anticoagulant has your head spinning, your health care provider and a new anticoagulant patient toolkit can help.

Anticoagulants, sometimes known as blood thinners, could be the most misunderstood medications on the market.

Anticoagulants tend to be affected by other drugs, vitamins and certain foods, making the drug therapy somewhat confusing for patients and their caregivers. To help, anticoagulation clinics and experts in Michigan created an Anticoagulation Toolkit to address frequently asked questions and concerns.

Warfarin, for example, competes with vitamin K, so patients taking warfarin should consult with their health care provider about possible dietary restrictions. Prescription drugs can make some anticoagulants either stronger or weaker.

Certain anticoagulants also require regular blood tests to ensure the correct dose. A weak dosage increases the risk of stroke and heart attack, and too much puts a person at risk for bleeding.

With newer versions being added to time-tested varieties, it’s hard — but not impossible — to keep things straight.

What blood thinners do

The drugs prevent your blood from clotting or prevent existing clots from getting larger. They can keep harmful clots from forming in your heart, veins or arteries. These often-dangerous clots can block blood flow and cause a heart attack or stroke.

Some people may need to take an anticoagulant for life, such as patients with mechanical heart valve replacements. Others may need the drugs for a short period, such as those with a blood clot in the leg due to immobility.

Developments in anticoagulants

Long-standing anticoagulants such as Coumadin (also known as warfarin) and heparin have been joined in recent years by newer varieties known as direct oral anticoagulants (DOACs). These include Pradaxa, Xarelto and Eliquis. Your doctor will help you decide which one is right for you. 

Once the decision is made about what medication is right for you, your responsibilities kick in. If you’re on an anticoagulant, it’s critical that you take your medication exactly as prescribed without skipping a single dose. If you’re taking an anticoagulant that requires regular blood tests, you need to be available for those tests.

It’s also important that you let your primary doctor and dentist know you’re taking an anticoagulant. And be sure to check with your doctor before taking other medications, such as vitamins, cold medicine, sleeping pills or antibiotics. These can make certain anticoagulants stronger or weaker, which can be dangerous to your health.

Who takes anticoagulants?

Anticoagulants may be prescribed if you have any of the following conditions or procedures:

  • Atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat). Atrial fibrillation is one of the most common reasons for taking an anticoagulant.

  • Heart valve replacement. Mechanical valves can increase the chance of blood clots.

  • Mitral stenosis. This is a condition in which one of the heart valves does not fully open or close.

  • Certain blood disorders that affect how your blood clots.

  • Orthopedic surgery (e.g., hip or knee replacement) could put you at increased risk for blood clots.

  • Deep vein thrombosis, which is a blood clot in the leg.

  • Stroke due to a blood clot in the brain.

  • Pulmonary embolism, or a blood clot in the lungs.

For more reading, here are the five things you need to know when taking warfarin.