Doctors prescribe medicines for varied reasons, to cure an ailment, to prevent or stop an infection, to ease symptoms, to reduce risks etc. But if there is one particular group of medicines where there is a need for rigorous monitoring regime when taken, it is blood thinners. Not without a reason. Though approved by the FDA, if not handled properly, prolonged use of blood thinners can be unsafe.
Need for Blood thinners
Blood thinners reduce the ability of the blood to clot. Blood thinners belong to a class of drugs called anticoagulants. Immediately after an injury, a scrape or a cut, the blood coagulates and seals the wound, forming a scab to protect from infection. The blood clots formed will be naturally dissolved in the body after the injury is healed. Here blood clotting is a saver and is essential for the body.
The mechanism is regarded as dangerous when blood clots form in the blood stream without an obvious injury and if the blood clot fails to dissolve naturally after the injury heals. The situation poses great risks as it can block circulation; the blood clot can travel to the arteries or veins in the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs and limbs. This in turn can lead to life-threatening conditions such as heart attack, stroke, damage body's organs and in extreme cases result in loss of life.
An updated (February 2014) American Academy of Neurology (AAN) guideline recommends people with an irregular heartbeat to take blood thinners to reduce the risk of stroke. As per doctor's prescription, every year around 2 million people take blood thinner medications every day. It is strongly recommended that blood thinner be taken only under medical supervision.
New vs. old blood thinners
Warfarin was introduced sixty years ago. It is regarded as the oldest anticoagulant blood thinner medication. For decades, Warfarin was the only blood thinner available to lower risks of stroke. There are new additions. A recent study has showed that new blood thinners might be more effective than older medications.
Detailed studies comparing Warfarin with the new addition state the following:
Types of blood thinners
It is chemical formulations that contribute to preventing clotting in various ways. Broadly blood thinner medications are classified into anticoagulant and anti platelet blood thinners.
Anticoagulant blood thinners
Anticoagulant blood thinner medications help decrease the tendency of blood clot formation. There are two ways to decrease the formation of blood clots in the body. Anticoagulants can interfere with platelets or block the body's production of clotting substances. Anticoagulant blood thinners are prescribed for people who have had a condition caused by a blood clot or are at risk of developing one.
Anticoagulant blood thinners are usually given by mouth. In some cases anticoagulants are given intravenously or by injecting them just under the skin (subcutaneously).
Warfarin: Warfarin is the generic drug. In the US, Warfarin is sold under the brand names Coumadin and Jantoven. Doctors prescribe Warfarin for two reasons, to prevent the formation of harmful blood clots or treat an existing blood clot. Some conditions for which Warfarin is prescribed include:
Patients prescribed Warfarin ought to know how Warfarin works. Knowing helps limit the intake of vitamin K rich foods like dark green vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, turnip greens, green peas etc. At any time, the blood needs certain proteins to clot. These proteins are made in the liver. To enable the liver in the process, Vitamin K is required.
When Warfarin is administered, it reduces the liver's ability to use Vitamin K. Warfarin and Vitamin K work against each other. Thus, the formation of blood clot becomes harder. The interaction between Warfarin and Vitamin K explains the need to partake a diet that is constant in Vitamin K while on Warfarin. The dosage of Warfarin may vary from person to person. A blood test may be recommended to determine the dosage. This blood test, Prothrombin Time or International Normalized Ratio is required to monitor the body's response to Warfarin. Based on test results, Warfarin dose will be determined.
Side effects of Warfarin
Warfarin or Heparin, a common side effect of any anticoagulant medication is the risk of excessive bleeding. As these medicines prolong or lengthen or makes blood clot formation harder, it increases the time for formation of blood clots. If the time taken is too long, there is a possibility of excessive bleeding. There are other symptoms to look out for which are more common with Warfarin. Patients on Warfarin should immediately seek medical attention for any these common Warfarin side effects.
Women who take Warfarin should contact health care provider if they experience heavy or increased bleeding during menstruation or any other bleeding from the vagina.
Irrespective of the gender, some patients may experience rashes, diarrhea, nausea, hair loss while on Warfarin. These are not common side effects but are termed as additional side effects of Warfarin.
Doctors do advice patients to seek help if the patient is involved in a major accident, experiences a significant blow to the head and finds it difficult to stop bleeding, if any. As Warfarin can interact with many other medicines, so do inform the doctor about all the medications being taken.
Warfarin during pregnancy: Warfarin should be avoided during pregnancy and women with certain health conditions like high blood pressure, ulcer in the digestive tract should not take Warfarin as it can lead to severe health complications.
Long terms risks of using Warfarin: Extensive research on prolonged use of Warfarin suggests that the risk increases with age. The patient is at risk of serious or even fatal bleeding including internal bleeding. In particular the risks are:
Heparin: Heparin is the generic name. In US, Heparin is available under the brand names Lipohepin, liquaemin and Panheparin. Heparin decreases the clotting ability of the blood and also prevents existing clots from getting larger. Thereby, the normal body systems dissolve the clots that are already formed. Heparin is usually administered as an injection. Heparin can be injected subcutaneously or as an intravenous infusion. The advantage of IV is that it can be turned off quickly for safety reasons. Heparin is prescribed for conditions such as:
It helps to know how heparin works. Heparin ensures that an anti-clotting protein which is present in the body works better, thus decreasing the clotting ability of the blood.
Available in different strengths, the doctor must prescribe the strength depending on the purpose for which it is prescribed. During the course of treatment, the doctor may increase or decrease the dosage.
Side effects of heparin
A unique possible side effect of Heparin is that several weeks after stopping the injection, bleeding episodes may occur. If the patient notices bruising or unusual bleeding such as a nosebleed, blood in the urine or stools, black or tarry stools or any other bleeding that doesn't cease, contact your healthcare provider.
Besides the common side effects of anticoagulant medications, Heparin's other side effects are visible at that point where the solution is injected.
Herparin during pregnancy: FDA category for Heparin is C meaning there isn't established information that proves whether Heparin affects the fetus. It is best for pregnant women as well as breast-feeding mothers to use Heparin only if the medicine is prescribed by the doctor.
Long term risks of using Heparin
Prolonged use of Heparin particularly in the elderly may cause osteoporosis, a condition in which the bones become weak and may break easily.
Antiplatelet blood thinners
Antiplatelet blood thinner medications work to prevent the platelets (small cells in the blood) from clumping together to form a blood clot. This happens by inhibiting the production of thromboxane, a chemical that signals other platelets to come together. By inhibiting the production of thromboxane, platelets cease to come together to form the blood clot.
Thromboxane's role is helpful for a normal healthy individual who has suffered a wound. It acts as a self-sealing material. But, in the case of a stroke survivor, thromboxane's ability to bind and form a blood clot is potentially life-threatening. Hence, the need to use an antiplatelet blood thinner which are usually available in the form of tablets only.
Doctors prescribe antiplatelet Aspirin to patients who have had a stroke or TIA (transient ischemic attack) so as to reduce the risk of having another stroke. This is possible with Aspirin as it interferes with the blood's clotting action. The dosage varies from patient to patient and is largely guided by the patient's health condition.
Though Aspirin is available OTC (over the counter), doctors recommend low doses of Aspirin for patients with the following medical history.
Aspirin is prescribed to patients who are considered to be at risk of having heart attack or stroke. Anyone with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetic and smoke aggressively are regarded to be at risk of having heart attack or stroke.
Side effect of Aspirin
Most common side effect of taking low doses of Aspirin (100 mg dose) is heartburn and stomach upset. Seldom has there been a very serious side effect related to taking Aspirin as a blood thinner medication. However it is best to be aware of possible serious side effects such as bruising/bleeding, difficulty hearing, ringing in the ears, and change in urine amount, persistent or severe nausea /vomiting, unexplained tiredness, dizziness, dark urine, yellowing of eyes or skin.
Aspirin during pregnancy
The FDA has not assigned formally a pregnancy category. Aspirin is not recommended for use during pregnancy and while breast-feeding as it excretes into breast milk in small amounts.
Other antiplatelet blood thinners
Besides Aspirin, other antiplatelet medicines that are prescribed to prevent the platelets from sticking together include the following. Doctors prescribe a specific antiplatelet blood thinner taking into account the specific health condition and relative effectiveness of the blood thinner medicine. New drugs are continually added to the list with FDA approval.
Long term risks of using Aspirin
Daily use of aspirin can have serious side effects including internal bleeding. Prolonged use of aspirin at higher doses (> 500 mg) can cause stomach ulcers, and can also prolonged bleeding.
Thrombophlebitis is derived from the word 'thrombo' which means clot. Phlebitis indicates a swollen or inflamed vein. Thrombophlebitis is a blood circulatory condition that is caused by blood clots. It occurs mostly in the legs. Thrombophlebitis can occur at a superficial or deeper level. Superficial thromboplebitis occurs more commonly and is seldom life threatening. On the other hand, deep venous thrombosis affects larger and deeper veins. Sometimes there may be a condition of both superficial and deep vein components. In cases where there is superficial thromboplebitis, care must be taken to ensure that it does not cascade into condition where the deep veins are involved. Most cases of superficial thrombophlebitis resolve by themselves in a couple of weeks. It is when the deeper veins are affected that the clot can hamper or even cut off the bloodstream. The clot can travel through the blood and block circulation in vital organs such as the heart or lungs.
One of the common causes for thrombophlebitis is hospitalization due to surgery or bed rest. This is because thrombophlebitis is caused from long periods of inactivity. Long airplane journeys can reduce blood flow through the veins and lead to the formation of clots. Varicose veins, pregnancy or complication of IV tubes can lead to thrombophlebitis. Women using oral contraceptives or undergoing HRT are at increased risk of developing thrombophlebitis. If you have a family history of blood clots, you may be at risk of thrombophlebitis. When a patient suffers from thrombophlebitis, the leg veins become swollen and hard to touch. There is redness and swelling in the affected area. When a person suffers from superficial thrombophlebitis, he/she might feel a hard and tender cord barely under the surface of the skin.
Diagnostic tools such as Doppler ultrasound or blood coagulation studies help in examining a patient for thrombophlebitis. For mild cases of superficial thrombophlebitis, you can take analgesics to reduce pain and non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for inflammation. To reduce the pain or discomfort and the swelling, support stockings and elevation of the affected extremity are usually recommended. In cases of deep venous thrombophlebitis, Thrombolytic drugs are prescribed to melt the clots. Antibiotics are prescribed to treat any infection. Supportive hose or stockings can help in reducing swelling. Keeping the leg elevated prevents excess fluid in the affected area. Application of moist heat on the affected area helps in reducing pain. In high-risk cases of deep venous thrombophlebitis, surgery is used to strip out the affected vein or bypass the clot. Anticoagulants or blood thinners to prevent new clots from forming.
Thoracentesis or pleural fluid aspiration is a procedure that involves removal of fluid from the space between the lining of the pleura and the chest wall. Fluid is withdrawn with the aid of a needle passed through the skin of the chest wall into the pleural space. An analysis of the pleural effusion can indicate pulmonary embolism, hemothorax, Pancreatitis, pneumonia, heart failure or thyroid disease. Thoracentesis can aid in relieving pressure caused by accumulation of excess pleural fluid. A chest x-ray is taken before and after the Thoracentesis process. Do not move or cough while the diagnostic test is being conducted. Patients who have had lung surgery or lung disease such as emphysema may have difficulty with Thoracentesis. Pneumothorax, pulmonary edema or respiratory distress are rare complications associated with thoracentesis. It is essential to keep the doctor posted of any medications such as blood thinners or known allergies.
Bibliography / Reference
Collection of Pages - Last revised Date: December 12, 2017