Cholesterol-lowering medicines, statins

Statins are a group of medicines that can help lower the level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in the blood.

LDL cholesterol is often referred to as "bad cholesterol", and statins reduce the production of it inside the liver.

Why have I been offered statins?

Having a high level of LDL cholesterol is potentially dangerous, as it can lead to a hardening and narrowing of the arteries (atherosclerosis) and cardiovascular disease (CVD).

CVD is a general term that describes a disease of the heart or blood vessels. It is the most common cause of death in the UK. The main types of CVD are:

  • coronary heart disease – when the blood supply to the heart becomes restricted
  • angina – sharp chest pain, caused by coronary heart disease
  • heart attacks – when the supply of blood to the heart is suddenly blocked
  • stroke – when the supply of blood to the brain becomes blocked

Statins are usually offered to people who have been diagnosed with a form of CVD, or whose personal and family medical history suggests they are likely to develop CVD at some point over the next 10 years.

If you are offered statins, you will also be advised about lifestyle changes you can make to help reduce your cholesterol level. These include eating a healthy diet low in saturated fat, exercising regularly, stopping smoking and moderating your alcohol consumption.

Read more about when statins may be recommended.

Taking statins

Statins come as tablets that are taken once a day. The tablets should normally be taken at the same time each day  most people take them just before going to bed.

In most cases, treatment with statins will need to continue for life, as stopping the medication will cause your cholesterol to return to a high level within a few weeks.

If you ever forget to take your dose, do not take an extra one to make up for it. Just take your next dose as usual the following day.

If you accidentally take too many statin tablets (more than your usual daily dose), contact your doctor or pharmacist for advice, or call NHS 111.

Cautions and interactions

Statins can sometimes interact with other medicines, increasing the risk of unpleasant side effects, such as muscle damage. Some types of statin can also interact with grapefruit juice.

It is very important to read the information leaflet that comes with your medication, to check if there are any interactions you should be aware of. If in doubt, contact your GP or pharmacist for advice.

Read more about things to consider when taking statins.

Side effects of statins

Many people who take statins experience no or very few side effects. Others experience some troublesome  but usually minor  side effects, such as an upset stomach, headache or feeling sick.

Cases that involve more serious side effects, such as kidney failure, tend to get a great deal of media coverage, but these instances are rare. The British Heart Foundation states than just 1 in every 10,000 people who take statins will experience a potentially dangerous side effect.

The risks of any side effects also have to be balanced against the benefits of preventing serious problems. A review of scientific studies into the effectiveness of statins found that around one in every 50 people who take the medication for five years will avoid a serious event, such as a heart attack or stroke, as a result.

Read more about the side effects of statins.

Alternatives to statins

Your doctor may offer statins as a treatment if you are believed to be at risk of CVD. However, it is up to you whether you take them.

Although statins are extremely effective at reducing high cholesterol, they are not the only option. Alternative measures to reduce your cholesterol level include:

  • eating a healthy diet low in saturated fats
  • increasing the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in your diet
  • taking another prescribed medication

Read more about treating high cholesterol.

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