Quick guide to heart medication

Whether you have unstable angina or you’re recovering from a heart attack, you’ll need to take several drugs. It’s not possible to combine everything in one pill because the doses vary for each medication between individuals.

Often the same drugs will be used, whether you have unstable angina or are recovering from a heart attack. What you take and for how long will depend on your individual needs and most people won't take all of the medicines listed below.

Your drug regime will be monitored in your cardiac rehab sessions. Afterwards your GP will want to review your medication every so often, depending on how you respond to them. In the long term, they should review your medication at least every year.

How your heart drugs work 1

ACE inhibitors – Block the activity of an artery narrowing substance called angiotensin II, improving blood flow and easing the heart’s workload. ACE inhibitors also help the heart heal after a heart attack. The generic name of ACE inhibitors will end in -pril.

Anti-platelet drugs – Prevent blood platelets sticking together, to reduce your risk of a blood clot that can bring on another heart attack or a stroke by blocking oxygen supply to the heart or brain. Most people will take asprin along with another anti-platelets such as clopidogrel, prasugrel or ticagrelor.

Beta blockers – Slow the heart rate, easing the heart’s workload and keeping the rhythm steady. The generic name of Beta-blockers will end in -olol.

Statins – Reduce levels of cholesterol, a harmful fat that furs up the arteries. Overall they can reduce the risk of a stroke or heart attack by about a quarter. The generic name of your statin will end in -vastatin.

Other heart medicines that may be given:

Anticoagulants – Taken long-term, they make the blood thinner. Examples of anticoagulants may include rivaroxaban, dabigatran or apixaban

Nitrates: Glyceryl trinitrate (GTN) – Widens the blood vessels, providing immediate relief from angina pain.  An examples of a nitrate would be nitroglycerin.

Long-acting nitrates – Relax the muscles in the walls of the blood vessels, improving blood flow, lowering blood pressure and preventing angina in the long term. An example of a long-acting nitrates would be isosorbide mononitrate.

Calcium channel blockers – Relax muscles in the artery walls, widening them and improving blood flow. The generic name for this medicine will end in -ipine.

Diuretics – Increase the amount of water and salt you pass out of your body, easing your heart’s workload. Examples of diuretics may include bendroflumethiazide, furosemide or spironolactone.

Always follow your doctor’s instructions when you take medication. Check with a pharmacist or GP before taking other over-the-counter drugs, herbal medicines or supplements as some may interfere with your heart drugs. Certain foods should be avoided with some medications too, so always read the information leaflet that comes with your medicines.


Got questions about how to manage your medicines – and why you need to continue to take them?  Check out our answers here.