Anticoagulants can help prevent blood clots and lower your risk of stroke and pulmonary embolism, but there are some risks and side effects.
Dec 14, 2016Menopause & Aging Well
This article has been archived. We will no longer be updating it. For our most up-to-date information, please visit our medication safety information here.
By Elizabeth Shimer Bowers
If you are taking anticoagulant medication, chances are you are doing so for a good reason. These drugs help prevent blood clots, lowering your risk of stroke and pulmonary embolism. You may be taking anticoagulants because you've had a stroke in the past or because you have a condition known as atrial fibrillation (AFib) or have had a heart valve replacement.
By preventing clots, anticoagulants help keep you healthy and stroke-free. In fact, anticoagulants have been shown to reduce the risk of stroke in people with AFib by about 68 percent.
However, like many medications, anticoagulants come with some side effects and risks. The better you understand these risks, the more prepared you will be to recognize warning signs of a potential problem. When it comes to anticoagulant bleeding risk and management options, here's what you need to know:
How do anticoagulants work?
Although anticoagulants are commonly called "blood thinners," they do not actually thin the blood. Instead, they help prevent blood clots.
Traditional anticoagulants, like the widely used warfarin (Coumadin), thwart blood clots by reducing specific proteins called clotting factors. The liver cannot make clotting factors without vitamin K—a common vitamin found in spinach and other leafy greens, cabbage and cauliflower. These older anticoagulants work by interfering with vitamin K, which then blocks the production of certain clotting factors and prevents clots from forming.
More recent anticoagulants including apixaban (Eliquis), dabigitran (Pradaxa), edoxaban (Savaysa, Lixiana) and rivaroxaban (Xarelto) work differently than the traditional vitamin K antagonists in that they do not interfere with the liver or block vitamin K. Instead, they interfere with the production of thrombin, a substance necessary to complete the process of blood clotting.
How do anticoagulants increase bleeding risk?
Forming blood clots is your body's way of stopping bleeding, but anticoagulants can prevent this normal response. Clots, like a drain plug, physically obstruct the flow of blood at the site of bleeding. The potential risk from anticoagulants is that you may continue bleeding, even when your body requires a clot, which can happen even at a normal dose of medication.
How can you manage bleeding risk associated with anticoagulants?
There are a number of things you can do to minimize the risk of bleeding while taking anticoagulants, including the following:
If you take an anticoagulant medication, you simply cannot be too informed or prepared. The more you know about the effects and risks of these drugs, the more empowered you will be to care for your health.