Alpha1-adrenergic blockers are drugs that work by blocking the alpha1-receptors of vascular smooth muscle, thus preventing the uptake of catecholamines by the smooth muscle cells. This causes vasodilation and allows blood to flow more easily.
These drugs, called alpha blockers for short, are used for two main purposes: to treat high blood pressure (hypertension) and to treat benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), a condition that affects men and is characterized by an enlarged prostate gland.
High blood pressure
High blood pressure puts a strain on the heart and the arteries. Over time, hypertension can damage the blood vessels to the point of causing stroke, heart failure or kidney failure. People with high blood pressure may also be at higher risk for heart attacks. Controlling high blood pressure makes these problems less likely. Alpha blockers help lower blood pressure by causing vasodilation, meaning an increase in the diameter of the blood vessels, which allows blood to flow more easily.
Benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH)
This condition particularly affects older men. Over time, the prostate, a donut-shaped gland below the bladder, enlarges. When this happens, it may interfere with the passage of urine from the bladder out of the body. Men who are diagnosed with BPH may have to urinate more often. Or they may feel that they can not completely empty their bladders. Alpha blockers inhibit the contraction of prostatic smooth muscle and thus relax muscles in the prostate and the bladder, allowing urine to flow more freely.
Commonly prescribed alpha blockers for hypertension and BPH include doxazosin (Cardura, prazosin (Minipress) and terazosin (Hytrin). Prazosin is also used in the treatment of heart failure. All are available only with a physician's prescription and are sold in tablet form.
The recommended dose depends on the patient and the type of alpha blocker and may change over the course of treatment. The prescribing physician will gradually increase the dosage, if necessary. Some patients may need as much as 15-20 mg per day of terazosin, 16 mg per day of doxazosin, or as much as 40 mg per day of prazosin, but most people benefit from lower doses. As the dosage increases, so does the possibility of unwanted side effects.
Alpha blockers should be taken exactly as directed, even if the medication does not seem to be working at first. It should not be stopped even if symptoms improve because it needs to be taken regularly to be effective. Patients should avoid missing any doses, and should not take larger or more frequent doses to make up for missed doses.
Alpha blockers may lower blood pressure to a greater extent than desired. This can cause dizziness, lightheadedness, heart palpitations, and fainting. Activities such as driving, using machines, or doing anything else that might be dangerous for 24 hours after taking the first dose should be avoided. Patients should be reminded to be especially careful not to fall when getting up in the middle of the night. The same precautions are recommended if the dosage is increased or if the drug has been stopped and then started again. Anyone whose safety on the job could be affected by taking alpha blockers should inform his or her physician, so that the physician can take this factor into account when increasing dosage.
Dizziness, lightheadedness, and fainting are more likely to occur when people taking alpha blockers also drink alcohol, exercise, stand for a long time, or are exposed to hot weather. Extra care should be used under these conditions and alcohol consumption should be limited.
Some people may feel drowsy or less alert when using these drugs. They should accordingly avoid driving or performing activities that require full attention.
People diagnosed with kidney disease or liver disease may also be more sensitive to alpha blockers. They should inform their physicians about these conditions if alpha blockers are prescribed. Older people may also be more sensitive and may be more likely to have unwanted side effects, such as fainting, dizziness, and lightheadedness.
It should be noted that alpha blockers do not cure high blood pressure. They simply help to keep the condition under control. Similarly, these drugs will not shrink an enlarged prostate gland. Although they will help relieve the symptoms of prostate enlargement, the prostate may continue to grow, and it eventually may be necessary to have prostate surgery.
Alpha blockers may lower blood counts. Patients may need to have their blood checked regularly while taking this medicine.
Anyone who has had unusual reactions to alpha blockers 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.
The effects of taking alpha blockers during pregnancy are not fully understood. Women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant should inform their physicians. Breastfeeding mothers who need to take alpha blockers should also talk to their physicians. These drugs can pass into breast milk and may affect nursing babies. It may be necessary to stop breastfeeding while being treated with alpha blockers.
The most common side effects are dizziness, drowsiness, tiredness, headache, nervousness, irritability, stuffy or runny nose, nausea, pain in the arms and legs, and weakness. These problems usually go away as the body adjusts to the drug and do not require medical treatment. If they do not subside or if they interfere with normal activities, the physician should be informed.
If any of the following side effects occur, the prescribing physician should be notified as soon as possible:
- shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- fast, pounding, or irregular heartbeat
- swollen feet, ankles, wrists
Other side effects may occur. Anyone who has unusual symptoms after taking alpha blockers should contact his or her physician.
Doxazosin (Cardura) is not known to interact with any other drugs. Terazosin (Hytrin) may interact with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen
Adrenergic—Refers to neurons (nerve cells) that use catecholamines as neurotransmitters at a synapse.
Adrenergic receptor—There are three families of adrenergic receptors, alpha1, alpha2 and beta, and each family contains three distinct subtypes. Each of the nine subtypes are coded by separate genes, and display specific drug specificities and regulatory properties.
Alpha blockers—Medications that bind alpha adrenergic receptors and decrease the workload of the heart and lower blood pressure. They are commonly used to treat hypertension, peripheral vascular disease, and hyperplasia.
Arteries—Blood vessels that carry oxygenated blood away from the heart to the cells, tissues, and organs of the body.
Catecholamines—Family of neurotransmitters containing dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine, produced and secreted by cells of the adrenal medulla in the brain. Catecholamines have excitatory effects on smooth muscle cells of the vessels that supply blood to the skin and mucous membranes and have inhibitory effects on smooth muscle cells located in the wall of the gut, the bronchial tree of the lungs, and the vessels that supply blood to skeletal muscle. There are two different main types of receptors for these neurotransmitters, called alpha and beta adrenergic receptors. The catecholamines are therefore are also known as adrenergic neurotransmitters.
Hyperplasia—The abnormal increase in the number of normal cells in a given tissue.
Hypertension—Persistently high arterial blood pressure.
Neurotransmitter—Substance released from neurons of the peripheral nervous system that travels across the synaptic clefts (gaps) of other neurons to excite or inhibit the target cell.
Palpitation—Rapid, forceful, throbbing, or fluttering heartbeat.
Receptor—A molecular structure in a cell or on the surface of a cell that allows binding of a specific substance that causes a specific physiologic response.
Synapse—A connection between nerve cells, by which nervous excitation is transferred from one cell to the other.
Vasodilation—The increase in the internal diameter of a blood vessel that results from relaxation of smooth muscle within the wall of the vessel thus causing an increase in blood flow.