Digitalis drugs are medicines made from a type of foxglove plant (Digitalis purpurea) that have a stimulating effect on the heart.
Digitalis drugs are used to treat heart problems such as congestive heart failure and irregular heartbeat. These medicines help make the heart stronger and more efficient. This, in turn, improves blood circulation and helps relieve the swelling of the hands and ankles that is common in people with heart problems.
Digitalis drugs, also known as digitalis glycosides, are available only with a physician's prescription. They are sold in tablet, capsule, liquid, and injectable forms. Commonly used digitalis drugs are digitoxin (Crystodigin) and digoxin (Lanoxin).
The recommended dosage is different for each patient. The physician who prescribes the medicine will determine the correct dose. Taking exactly the right amount of medicine and taking it exactly as directed are very important. Never take larger or more frequent doses. During treatment with a digitalis heart medicine, the physician will monitor blood levels of the drug and will decide whether the dose needs to be changed. Patients should never change the dose of this medicine unless told to do so by their physicians.
Seeing a physician regularly while taking digitalis drugs is very important. The physician will check to make sure the medicine is working as it should and will make any necessary changes in dosage or in instructions for taking the medicine.
Patients taking digitalis drugs should learn to take their pulse and should check it regularly while under treatment with this medicine. Changes in pulse rate, rhythm, or force could be signs of side effects.
Do not stop taking this medicine suddenly without checking with the physician who prescribed it. This could cause a serious change in heart function.
Digitalis drugs are responsible for many accidental poisonings in children. Keep this medicine out of the reach of children.
Be alert to the signs of overdose. Overdosing is a serious concern with digitalis drugs, because the amount of medicine that most people need to help their heart problems is very close to the amount that can cause problems from overdose. If any of these signs of overdose occur, check with a physician as soon as possible:
- loss of appetite
- pain in the lower stomach
- extreme tiredness or weakness
- extremely slow or irregular heartbeat (or fast heartbeat in children)
- blurred vision or other vision changes
- confusion or depression
Anyone who is taking digitalis drugs should be sure to tell the health care professional in charge before having any surgical or dental procedures or receiving emergency treatment. Physicians may advise people taking digitalis drugs to wear or carry medical identification indicating that they are taking this medicine.
Patients need to be very careful not to accidentally take this medicine in place of another medicine that looks similar. Patients who are taking other medicines that look like their digitalis medicine should ask their pharmacists for suggestions on how to avoid mix-ups.
Anyone who has had unusual reactions to digitalis drugs in the past should let his or her physician know before taking the drugs again. The physician should also be told about any allergies to foods, dyes, preservatives, or other substances.
Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding or who may become pregnant should check with their physicians before using digitalis drugs.
Older people may be especially sensitive to the effects of digitalis drugs, which may increase the chance of overdose.
Before using digitalis drugs, people with any of the following the medical problems should make sure their physicians are aware of their conditions:
- heart disease
- heart rhythm problems
- severe lung disease
- kidney disease
- liver disease
- thyroid disease
Side effects are rare with this medicine. Check with a physician as soon as possible if a skin rash, hives, or any other unusual or troublesome symptoms occur. Watch for signs of overdose.
Digitalis drugs may interact with a number of other medicines. When this happens, the effects of one or both of the drugs may change or the risk of side effects may be greater. For example:
- Taking digitalis drugs with other heart medicines, amphetamines, or diet pills could increase the risk of heart rhythm problems.
- Calcium channel blockers, used to treat high blood pressure, may cause higher than usual levels of digitalis drugs in the body that could lead to symptoms of overdose as covered in the above section.
- Diuretics (water pills) or other medicines that lower the amount of potassium in the body may increase the side effects of digitalis drugs.
- Medicines that increase the amount of potassium in the body may raise the risk of serious heart rhythm problems when taken with digitalis drugs.
- Diarrhea medicine or cholesterol-lowering drugs such as cholestyramine (Questran) and colestipol (Colestid) may keep digitalis medicines from being absorbed into the body. To prevent this problem, digitalis drugs should be taken several hours before or after taking these medicines.
The list above does not include every drug that may interact with digitalis drugs. Be sure to check with a physician or pharmacist before taking any other prescription or nonprescription (over-the-counter) medicine.
In addition, a diet high in fiber may interfere with the effects of digitalis drugs by preventing the medicine from being absorbed into the body. To avoid this problem, eat high fiber foods (such as bran products, whole wheat bread, and fresh fruits and vegetables) several hours before or after taking digitalis medicine.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.