Anticoagulant and Antiplatelet Drugs

Written by Tricia Kinman
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on June 5, 2013

Anticoagulant and Antiplatelet Drugs

Anticoagulants and antiplatelet drugs are a type of medication that is used to eliminate or reduce the risk of blood clots. They are often called “blood thinners”, but these medicines don’t really thin the blood. Instead, these medications help prevent or break up clots in your blood vessels or heart.

Clots form when platelets stick together and proteins in the blood bind together to form a solid mass. Blood clots are usually good, such as when you get a scrape or cut. However, when blood clots form in your blood vessels, they can be dangerous because they can block your circulation.  When blood clots form in your arteries or heart, they stop the flow of blood. This can cause a heart attack. If a blood clot clogs the blood vessels in your brain, this can cause a stroke. Anticoagulant and antiplatelet drugs work by stopping platelets from adhering to one another and clotting proteins from binding together.

Types of Anticoagulant and Antiplatelet Drugs

Heparin and Coumadin (warfarin) are two common anticoagulant medications. Aspirin is a common antiplatelet medication.

Who Takes Anticoagulants?

Your doctor may recommend an anticoagulant or antiplatelet medication if you have cardiovascular (heart) disease or problems with blood circulation or blood flow. These medications are also sometimes prescribed for people with atrial fibrillation (abnormal heartbeat). People who have had heart valve surgery, or have congenital heart defects, can also be prescribed these medications.

Benefits

The greatest benefit of these medications is that they prevent blood clots and the serious complications that can occur from them. Aspirin in particular can be a lifesaver, according to the American Heart Association (AHA, 2012). Aspirin has been known to help reduce the risk of a transient ischemic attack (TIA), stroke, and heart attack (AHA, 2012).

If you are on anticoagulant medication you will undergo regular blood tests called the INR Test. This lets your care provider know that the medication is maintained at the proper level.  It is important that you follow your care provider’s instructions carefully when taking these medications.

Risks

There are serious risks to taking a blood thinning medication. Sometimes the medication can cause bleeding problems, headaches, dizziness, pain, and discomfort. You will need to call your doctor if you notice:

  • bruises
  • swelling
  • blood in your urine or stool or stools that look like coffee grounds
  • more bleeding than normal during your period
  • purple toes, a sign of purple toes syndrome, a serious condition
  • pain, change in temperature, or notice blackish areas in your extremities

You should not take Coumadin if you are at risk for bleeding, pregnant, or breastfeeding. You should also tell your doctor if you have diabetes, high blood pressure, problems with falls, congestive heart failure, or liver or kidney problems. Coumadin may worsen these conditions.

Patients should speak with their doctor to make sure the benefits of taking blood-thinning medication outweigh the risks.

What You Need to Know When Taking Anticoagulants

A patient taking a blood thinner should let their healthcare providers know. People taking Coumadin or heparin should be sure to wear an identification bracelet. It is also important that care providers are aware of any other medications that their patients are taking. Many other medications can have an effect on how the body responds to anticoagulants. 

A patient planning to have surgery or visit the dentist should inform their surgeon or dentist that they are taking anticoagulants. These procedures may risk bleeding that is difficult to stop. Sometimes, a patient will need to stop taking blood-thinners before a dental appointment or surgery. Discuss this with your doctor before doing so.

Because the risks and side effects are serious, patients taking anticoagulant and antiplatelet drugs should carefully follow the instructions provided to them by their doctor, and call their doctor if they miss a dose. Avoiding sports and other activities that might cause injury is also important, as it may be difficult for the body to stop the bleeding or clot normally.

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Article Sources:

  • FDA Drug Safety Communication: Update on the risk for serious bleeding events with the anticoagulant Pradaxa (dabigatran). (n.d.). U S Food and Drug Administration Home Page. Retrieved from http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/DrugSafety/ucm326580.htm
  • Medication Guide COUMADIN (warfarin sodium). (n.d.). FDA. Retrieved from http://www.fda.gov/downloads/drugs/drugsafety/ucm088578.pdf
  • Blood Thinners. (n.d.). MedlinePlus. Retrieved from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/bloodthinners.html
  • What Are Anticoagulants and Antiplatelet Agents?. (n.d.). American Heart Association. Retrieved from http://www.heart.org/idc/groups/heart-public/@wcm/@hcm/documents/downloadable/ucm_300338.pdf 

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