Statins: Side effects, uses, and risks

Statins are a class of medicines that are used to lower blood cholesterol levels. They do this by blocking the action of an enzyme in the liver that is necessary for making cholesterol.

Cholesterol is necessary for normal cell and body function, but very high levels can lead to atherosclerosis, a condition where cholesterol-containing plaques build up in the arteries and block blood flow.

By reducing blood cholesterol levels, statins lower the risk of chest pain (angina), heart attack, and stroke. Here we will look at how statins work, who uses them, and the associated risks and benefits.

Fast facts on statins:

Statins are used to lower cholesterol levels in the blood.

Statins work by inhibiting an enzyme called HMG-CoA reductase.

People with atheroma-related disease, diabetes, and a family history of heart attacks are often prescribed statins.

People with liver disease should discuss the risks and benefits of statins carefully with their doctor.

What are statins?

lipitor

Statins are a type of medication that blocks the action of a liver enzyme that helps produce cholesterol. They are typically prescribed to lower blood cholesterol levels. Types of statins include:

atorvastatin

cerivastatin

fluvastatin

lovastatin

mevastatin

pitavastatin

pravastatin

rosuvastatin

simvastatin

Atorvastatin and rosuvastatin are the most potent, while fluvastatin is the least potent. These medicines are sold under several different brand names, including:

Lipitor (atorvastatin)

Pravachol (pravastatin)

Crestor (rosuvastatin)

Zocor (simvastatin)

Lescol (fluvastatin)

Vytorin (a combination of simvastatin and ezetimibe)

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Side effects

Most people who take statins have minor or no side effects. Minor side effects include:

headache

pins and needles sensation

abdominal pain

bloating

diarrhea

feeling sick

a rash

Some statin drugs may impair memory – researchers at the University of Bristol in England found that two commonly prescribed statins – pravastatin (Pravachol) and atorvastatin (Lipitor) – reduced performance of recognition and working memory in an animal study.

Statins may also raise the risk of developing cataracts. A research team at the San Antonio Military Medical Center, TX, reported in JAMA Ophthalmology that statin usage increased the risk of cataracts by 27 percent.

The two most serious side effects – both of which occur relatively rarely – are liver failure and skeletal muscle damage.

The muscle damage typically presents as muscle pain, which is often relieved when switching to a different type of statin. In rare cases, a severe type of myopathy called rhabdomyolysis may occur.

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