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Statins: Uses, Side Effects, and More

What Are Statins?

“Statins” refers to a group of medications that are designed to decrease the levels of cholesterol, especially low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, in your blood. People with high LDL cholesterol are likely to be at increased risk for developing peripheral vascular disease and cardiovascular disease. This in turn can lead to angina, heart attack, or stroke.

Why Are Statins Prescribed?

Statins are commonly prescribed for treatment of high cholesterol. Statins block HMG-CoA reductase, an enzyme your liver requires to make cholesterol. Blocking this enzyme enables a lowering of your cholesterol levels. Statins also make it easier to reabsorb built-up cholesterol in your arteries. 

According to the American Heart Association, you should consult your doctor about statins if:

  • you’re an adult whose LDL cholesterol is 190 mg/dL or higher
  • your LDL cholesterol is 70-189 mg/dL, and you’re at higher risk of heart attack or stroke within 10 years
  • you have a personal history of heart attack, stroke, angina, peripheral artery disease, transient ischemic attack, or coronary or other arterial revascularization
  • you are over 40 years old, have diabetes, and your LDL cholesterol is 70-189 mg/dL

Types of Statins

Statins are available under a variety of generic and brand names, including:

  • atorvastatin (Lipitor, Torvast)
  • fluvastatin (Lescol)
  • lovastatin (Mevacor, Altocor, Altoprev)
  • mevastatin
  • pitavastatin (Livalo, Pitava)
  • pravastatin (Pravachol, Selektine)
  • rosuvastatin calcium (Crestor)
  • simvastatin (Lipex, Zocor)

Some combination medications also contain statins. Among them are:

  • Advicor (contains lovastatin and niacin)
  • Caduet (contains atorvastatin and amlodipine)
  • Vytorin (contains simvastatin and ezetimibe)

Generic versions almost always cost much less than brand name versions.

Potential Risks and Side Effects

Did You Know?
Grapefruit can interact with certain statins, notably lovastatin and simvastatin, and make side effects worse. Read the warnings that come with your medications. If you have questions, contact your doctor or pharmacist.

Most people are able to take statins without too many side effects. Some of the more common side effects include:

  • joint and muscle aches
  • constipation
  • diarrhea
  • nausea

It’s hard to say if one type of statin will cause you to experience more side effects than another type. If you do have persistent side effects, your doctor may be able to adjust the dosage or recommend a different statin.

Muscle Pains

Statins, especially in high doses, can cause muscle pains. In rare cases, they can even cause muscle cells to breakdown. When that happens, the resulting protein, myoglobin, is released into the bloodstream. This condition is called rhabdomyolysis. This can cause damage to your kidneys. The chance of this happening is greater if you take statins with certain other medications, including:

  • some antifungals
  • cyclosporine (Restasis, Sandimmune)  
  • erythromycin (numerous brand names exist)
  • gemfibrozil (Lopid)
  • nefazodone (Serzone)
  • niacin (Niacor, Niaspan)

Liver Damage

Liver damage is another potentially serious side effect of statin therapy. That’s because statins cause an increase in liver enzymes. For that reason, your doctor will likely perform liver function tests before you start taking the medication and then repeat at regular intervals while you are continuing medication therapy. Symptoms of liver problems include jaundice (yellowing of skin and eyes), dark-colored urine, and right upper quadrant abdominal pain.

Increased Risk for Diabetes

Statins may also cause your blood glucose levels to rise, increasing your risk for type 2 diabetes. 

Confusion or Memory Problems

Although research studies have shown conflicting results, some people may experience confusion or memory problems while taking a statin. These side effects, if present at all, usually clear up within a few weeks after you stop taking the medications.

Benefits of Statins

Clinical trials show that statins can lower LDL cholesterol levels by as much as 50 percent. Statins may also lower your risk of heart attacks and strokes. 

Studies indicate that statins play a small role in raising HDL (good) cholesterol and lowering triglyceride levels.

Statins offer a few other benefits, too. They have some anti-inflammatory properties that impact blood vessels, the heart, and the brain. This could lower the risk of blood clots, heart attacks, and strokes. 

More research is needed, but statins may also help lower the chance of rejection after an organ transplant. Additionally, they may help lower the risk of:

  • some types of cancer
  • kidney disease
  • arthritis
  • bone fractures
  • dementia and Alzheimer’s disease

Discuss Statins with Your Doctor

In some cases, you can significantly lower your cholesterol with a healthy diet and regular exercise. If that doesn’t work, adding statins may help, but you’ll still need to make lifestyle changes. Ask your doctor about the benefits and potential risks of statins. For statins to work, you have to take them consistently. Be sure to discuss your family history as well as your personal medical history.

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