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What Are the Pros and Cons of Digitalis for Heart Failure?

By Madeleine A.
Updated May 17, 2024
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The pros and cons of digitalis for heart failure include its effectiveness in strengthening the performance of the heart and its propensity for side effects. Digitalis for heart failure is generally administered in conjunction with other cardiac medications. It is also used to treat a type of cardiac arrhythmia known as atrial fibrillation. Taking digitalis for heart failure can also reduce the risk for a heart attack and stroke.

The administration of digitalis for heart failure reduces the workload on the cardiovascular system and helps the heart maintain a strong, steady heartbeat. Digitalis is typically given once a day, and the dose is usually dependent upon age, weight, and current medical conditions. Side effects of digitalis include nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, diarrhea, and headache. Though digitalis is given to treat heart failure, it can contribute to an irregular heartbeat.

Serious side effects when taking digitalis for heart failure may include swelling of the throat and tongue, trouble breathing, difficulty swallowing, and hives. If these side effects occur, the patient needs to seek emergency medical care. These side effects are rare, however, they can occur. Digitalis is generally well-tolerated by most people, however, this medication can accumulate to toxic levels in the blood stream. This condition is known as digitalis toxicity, and when it occurs, the medication should be discontinued so that blood levels return to normal.

When digitalis for heart failure is prescribed, symptoms generally subside. Symptoms of heart failure can include shortness of breath, abnormal swelling of the face, feet, ankles, and sometimes the abdomen. In addition, other symptoms of heart failure include profound weakness, chest pain, shortness of breath when lying down, and coughing. If not managed, heart failure can prove life threatening, however, when managed well, the prognosis is generally favorable.

Heart failure can occur after an infection causes the heart muscle to weaken. Other predisposing conditions for heart failure may include an overactive or underactive thyroid, emphysema, severe anemia, and valvular disease. In addition to taking digitalis for heart failure, lifestyle changes can also help manage the condition. These include quitting smoking, limiting alcohol, managing weight, and lowering cholesterol. Getting adequate rest and eating a healthy diet can also help manage heart failure.

Surgery that may be recommended in addition to digitalis therapy include coronary bypass surgery to help facilitate blood flow, pacemaker insertion, and heart valve surgery. An implanted defibrillator also may be able to halt a life-threatening arrhythmia. These invasive interventions are typically reserved for more extensive cases of heart failure, but usually produce favorable results.

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