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Blood thinners

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.

  • Dabigatran (Generic name) approved by FDA in October 2010
  • Rivaroxaban (Generic name) approved by FDA in October 2011
  • Apixaban (Generic name) approved by FDA in December 2012.

Detailed studies comparing Warfarin with the new addition state the following:


  • New drugs are similar or even better than warfarin in preventing stroke.

  • As the optimal dose of Warfarin varies from patient to patient, blood levels of patients on Warfarin need to be checked periodically.

  • New blood thinner medications are regarded as more convenient because the patients taking them do not need to have blood levels checked.

  • A study on effectiveness reflected that new blood thinners were approximately 20% more effective in reducing the risk of stroke and 10 % more effective in reducing the risk of death when compared to warfarin.

  • New blood thinners, in addition to being more convenient, are potentially more effective than and similar in safety to warfarin.

  • New blood thinners are more expensive than Warfarin.

  • Long-term safety and side effects of new blood thinners is not yet available.

  • With Warfarin, it is easier to reverse the blood thinning effect if a patient is bleeding or needs urgent surgery.

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.


  • passing blood in your urine or feces (stools)
  • passing black feces
  • severe bruising
  • prolonged nosebleeds for more than 10 minutes
  • bleeding gums
  • blood while throwing up (vomiting)
  • coughing up blood
  • unusual headaches
  • sudden severe back pain
  • difficulty breathing or chest pain

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:


  • Bleeding strokes, or brain strokes (hemorrhage strokes)
  • Calcium build-up in the arteries and narrowing of the aortic valve that goes from the heart and carries oxygen to the body (aortic valve stenosis)

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:


  • Deep venous thrombosis
  • Arterial embolism
  • Pulmonary embolism
  • Prevention of blood clot during heart surgery, dialysis or blood transfusions
  • Peripheral artery obstruction by a foreign substance or a blood clot
  • Treatment to prevent peripheral artery thrombo-embolism.

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.


  • Swelling
  • Pain
  • Irritation
  • Bruising

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.

  • Patients who have had prior heart attacks
  • Patients who have had prior strokes
  • Patients with exertional and unstable angina
  • Patients with TIAs (transient ischemic attack called mini-stroke)
  • Patients at risk of atherosclerosis.

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.


  • Aspirin plus clopidogrel (brand name Plavix) is prescribed for patients who are diagnosed with coronary syndrome such as unstable angina or have had a heart attack, if stent is implanted or if the patient has had a stroke or mini stroke.

  • Aspirin plus extended dipyridamole (brand name Aggrenox) is prescribed for patients who have had a stroke or mini stroke (TIA).

  • Clopidogrel (brand name Plavix) is recommended by doctors if Aspirin is not suitable for a patient who has been diagnosed with acute coronary syndrome or had a stent implanted.

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.


Congestive Heart Failure

Congestive Heart Failure or CHF is a condition where there is weakening in the pumping action of the heart due to fluid buildup in the body. The term 'congestive' is indicative of the blood backing up into the liver, abdomen, lungs or lower extremities. This medical condition develops over a period of time and leads to enlargement of the heart. Due to the inability to pump enough blood, the heart compensates by becoming larger. This leads to enlarged heart chambers and thicker heart wall muscles. Persons suffering from coronary disease or arrhythmia are more at risk for CHF.


Persons suffering from hypertension and heart valve disease are more susceptible to congestive heart failure. If you have suffered a heart attack or congenital heart defect, you are more likely to be prone to CHF. Congestive heart failure is characterized by backing up of the blood from both one or both the lower chambers of the heart.


Symptoms of Congestive heart failure include shortness of breath and weakness. A person suffering from CHF may notice weight gain on account of body fluid accumulation. This shows up as water retention and edema in the ankles, feet and legs. The fluid buildup leads to frequent urination, especially at night. Chest pain, irregular pulse and restlessness are other symptoms of CHF. Decreased alertness and inability to pursue exercise are signs of congestive heart failure. There is weakness and extreme fatigue due to reduced blood flow to the major organs. Dizziness and confusion is noticed due to inadequate oxygen supply to the brain. Persistent cough and wheezing can also be noticed.


Diagnostic tests such as chest x-rays and ECG can aid in detecting any stress on the heart. During a physical examination, a doctor can detect fluid buildup in the chest. Imaging tests such as angiography and nuclear ventriculorgraphy help in clear diagnosis of the heart's pumping condition. EKG and echocardiogram aids in detecting any possible heart enlargement and fluid buildup. Blood tests can indicate any kidney or thyroid malfunction that may affect heart's functioning. BNP test or B-type natriuetic peptide Test is conducted to assess heart failure.


Medications for congestive heart failure include ACE inhibitors that keep the blood vessels open and inotropics to strengthen the heart's pumping capacity. Diuretics may be prescribed to get rid of excess body fluids. Vasodilators and Calcium channel blockers open up narrowed blood vessels. Angioplasty is done to open up narrowed arteries. This is resorted to in cases where there is fatty plaque buildup. Surgery to repair existing defects such as heart valve repair and coronary artery surgery are sometimes resorted to. Lifestyle changes can go a long way in keeping CHF at bay. CHF is a progressive condition; it cannot be cured but lifestyle changes can go a long way in slowing the progress of the disease. These include quitting smoking and controlling diabetes, cholesterol and high blood pressure. Control alcohol consumption and embark on a fitness regimen that includes aerobic exercise.


Aortic Stenosis

Aortic Stenosis is a condition where the aortic valve of the heart becomes narrowed. This leads to obstructed blood flow to the aorta from the left ventricle. Aortic Stenosis is more common among men. Elderly persons are likely to face this heart valve disease. When the narrowing of the aortic valve is to a small extent, the patient does not feel any discomfort or other symptoms. But when there is significant reduction in the valve area, it leads to decrease in cardiac output and may result in heart failure. Aortic valve stenosis must not be ignored as it systematically weakens the heart. It forces the left ventricle to work harder.


Aortic Stenosis is often caused by rheumatic fever, calcification of the valve, coronary artery disease or heart murmur. Symptoms of aortic stenosis include chest pain (angina), shortness of breath and fainting spells. They occur due to the heart muscle's inability to cope up with the extreme pressure load laid by Aortic stenosis. Patients suffering from aortic stenosis are likely to feel palpitations, dizziness and chest pain on exertion.


Enlargement of the left ventricle or Aortic stenosis can be diagnosed with the aid of Doppler ultrasound, echocardiogram, chest x-ray and trans esophageal echocardiogram. The physician will be able to notice arrhythmia and enlargement of left ventricle. Diuretics are prescribed to reduce high lung pressure. Blood thinners are used to prevent blood clots from being formed on the surface of the heart valves. Replacement of aortic valves is done in severe cases of valvular failure. Balloon valvuloplasty is a surgical procedure similar to balloon Angiography where a balloon is placed in an artery and later inflated to relieve obstruction.

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Collection of Pages - Last revised Date: December 9, 2019