Digitalis glycosides are a class of medications used in the treatment of certain cardiovascular conditions. Physicians often recommend digitalis glycosides to treat congestive heart failure, which occurs when the heart is unable to effectively pump blood throughout the body. Also, digitalis glycosides help strengthen the heart muscle and regulate abnormal rhythms. Failure to manage congestive heart failure and abnormal heart rhythms might result in damage to the heart muscle, as well as heart attacks and strokes.
Symptoms of congestive heart failure include difficulty breathing when lying down, shortness of breath, abnormal swelling, coughing, and weakness. Digitalis glycosides are usually well tolerated and are very effective in relieving or reducing symptoms. Other medications used in conjunction with digitalis glycosides are diuretics or water pills. These drugs help rid the body of excess fluid, including fluid that surrounds the heart, a common finding in those with congestive heart failure.
Although digitalis glycosides are considered safe, blood tests need to be evaluated periodically to determine if dangerous levels of the medication has built up in the blood. When this occurs, it is referred to as digitalis toxicity and can cause nausea, vomiting and heart irregularities. When this occurs, the dosage is then reduced or sometimes discontinued altogether. Other side effects related to digitalis glycosides are loss of appetite, diarrhea and headache. Rarely, these medications worsen the symptoms of the very conditions they're being used for.
Other treatments that may be used in conjunction with digitalis glycosides in treating heart failure include losing weight, eating a low-sodium diet, quitting smoking, and avoiding alcohol. When symptoms of heart failure occur, the health care provider can evaluate the condition and treatment options. Surgery may also be recommended to help manage heart failure and cardiac arrhythmias, and include the insertion of a pacemaker, valvular surgery, and the implantation of a small cardiac defibrillator.
In those who are unable to tolerate digitalis-type medications, other cardiac medications should be considered. These include a class of drugs known as beta blockers, which work to normalize the heart's rhythm and strengthen contractions. They also lower the heart rate and reduce blood pressure. Beta blockers can cause side effects such as dizziness, extremely low blood pressure, fatigue, and exercise intolerance. Historically, beta blockers were not considered to be an effective treatment for congestive heart failure, but research has shown that they can improve heart function and improve quality of life.